Cyclospora cases plague U.S. lettuce industry

27 Jul 2020

On June 20, retailers in nearly all the Midwestern states in the U.S. recalled bagged garden salad products that were linked to an outbreak of Cyclospora infections. As of July 22, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 641 cases across 11 states.

The private label bagged salad products were made at a Fresh Express – a subsidiary of Chiquita Brands – production facility in Streamwood, Illinois. Contaminated products were sold under store brands at ALDI Little Salad Bar, Giant Eagle, Hy-Vee, Jewel-Osco Signature Farms, ShopRite Wholesome Pantry, and Walmart Marketside.

Cyclospora cases plague U.S. lettuce industry
Image via PHÚC LONG on Unsplash

Cyclospora infections are accompanied by symptoms, including loss of appetite, weight loss, stomach cramps/pain, nausea and fatigue, according to the CDC. Cases of this parasite have been on the rise in recent years with the CDC reporting a 1,200% increase in cases between 2016 and 2018. While the reasons behind this increase are not fully understood, it mirrors a broader trend of increasing instances of foodborne illness in the U.S.

Food contaminated by pathogens is increasing across the board, according to CDC data, with Salmonella leading the cases of bacterial foodborne illness. On an annual basis, 1.2 million cases of Salmonella are reported in the U.S.

While both Cyclospora and Salmonella can adulterate a variety of foods, the American lettuce industry has taken the brunt of these instances of contamination for the last several years.

Romaine lettuce in particular has been plagued by several outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli contamination in the last two years. Facilities in Arizona and California are now subject to more scrupulous testing by the Food and Drug Administration in order to help stop future occurrences of contamination. However, the testing has proved to be geographically limited.

In this latest recall, the bagged salad mixes were made with iceberg lettuce and came from a facility in Illinois – an area of the country that was not on the FDA’s list for more stringent monitoring. This wave of illness seems to only have served to compound the difficulties in the troubled greens industry that is working on longer term solutions to alleviate these recurring bouts of contamination. One of these potential solutions is The Food Safety Modernization Act which will require lettuce growers to test irrigation water in hopes of preventing the spread of pathogens at the source. However, the application of this law is lagging; the act was signed into law in 2011 but its implementation has been delayed until 2022.

Finding a solution to mitigate the presence of illnesses in consumer products continues to be a priority for the U.S. government and industry stakeholders. While lawmakers push for overarching solutions, others are advocating for root cause analysis to understand how and why these outbreaks occur. The independent firm Pew Charitable Trusts has thrown in its bid to prioritize collaboration between the industry, regulators and researches in order to push for public health and mitigate the inevitable financial losses for manufacturers that result from recalls.

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