Caution with Cyclospora

Recently, you may have stopped to wonder if something hazardous is lurking in your salad. Many of us love eating fresh vegetables as a way to reach MyPlate goals, but none of us want to get queasy in the process. While we aim to keep our prepared and ready-to-eat foods safe for consumption, there are times when microbial contaminants can slip past our “food safety defenses” and cause illness. Case in point: an infamous microbial fiend that has been influencing our food system lately.

Parasite Patrol

In late July 2018 the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a public health alert on salad mixes, as well as beef, pork and poultry salad wrap products that were potentially contaminated with an infectious parasite. The culprit that caused the alert and a significant number of food recalls was Cyclospora cayetanensis.

The company that produced the Cyclospora-contaminated salad mix, made up of romaine lettuce and carrots, reported to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that the carrots in the mix went to only specific restaurants and did not reach other markets or restaurants. However, the salad mix producer also reported that the romaine lettuce also was distributed to other locations and was used for a variety of salad wraps.

As of Aug. 2, 2018, the FDA tallied 395 laboratory-confirmed cases of Cyclospora infections across 15 states, resulting in 16 hospitalizations but—thankfully—no deaths.

Learning More About Cyclospora

Cyclospora infections most often are linked to people living or traveling in tropical or subtropical regions. However, in the United States foodborne outbreaks linked to Cyclospora have been linked to various imported fresh fruits and vegetables (as noted above).

Cyclospora differs from other microbial pathogens, such as bacteria and viruses, in that it is a parasite. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people become infected by ingesting sporulated oocysts, which are the infective form of the parasite. This most commonly occurs when food or water contaminated with feces (containing mature and infective oocysts) is consumed.

An infected person will then shed unsporulated (immature, non-infective) Cyclospora oocysts in their feces. It takes the non-infective oocysts one to two weeks to develop, or “sporulate,” into an infective form. Thus, immediate and direct person-to-person contact or the ingestion of food or water contaminated with newly shed oocysts will not support transmission of Cyclospora. The diagram below illustrates the infection cycle.

In its infective form, this parasitic troublemaker can cause an intestinal illness called “cyclosporiasis.” Symptoms include diarrhea, loss of appetite, stomach pain, nausea and fatigue. Body aches, fever and other flu-like symptoms can also occur.

However, some people who are infected with Cyclospora do not have any symptoms. Those who suspect they have been exposed to the parasite and/or are showing infection symptoms may be prescribed antibiotics. Interestingly, many people who have healthy immune systems can recover without treatment.  But the infection, if not treated, may last for weeks or months.

Cutting Off Cyclospora

If you examine the safety standards for food around the globe, you would find that the United States has one of the safest food supplies. But consumers still have to take precautions when buying and preparing foods. It is important to stay updated on food safety recalls in order to avoid eating unsafe foods, and it is equally essential to prepare and store food safely.

If you think you may have foodborne illness from Cyclospora or any other microbial contaminant, seek attention from a medical professional immediately.