A brand of prepackaged salad from Iowa and Nebraska could be the cause of the recent outbreak of the parasite Cyclospora, which has sickened at least 370 people across 16 states, according to statements by the Iowa Department of Public Health.
The salad was similar to one of the pre-cut, pre-washed mixes available in many grocery stores. Though they are not yet releasing the name of the brand, they say the suspect salad contained a mixture of iceberg and romaine lettuce, red cabbage, and shredded carrots.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is investigating each of the salad's ingredients for traces of the tiny stomach-churning organism, but stated that all of the salad mixes likely responsible for the outbreak seem to have either already been eaten or outlived their shelf life.
No one has reportedly died from the infection, but more than 20 have been hospitalized. Symptoms include severe diarrhea and other stomach flu-like symptoms. The parasite, Cyclospora cayetanensis, is a tiny protozoan that usually spreads through contact with feces or fecal contamination.
Infections are uncommon in the United States, and more normally occur during travel in foreign countries. However, there was an outbreak of the infection among some people who ate imported raspberries at a wedding reception in Pennsylvania in 2000.
Health Departments in 15 states have reported cases: Iowa, Texas, Nebraska, Florida, Wisconsin, Illinois, Georgia, Missouri, Arkansas, Connecticut, Kansas, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio.
This will probably go down as the worst outbreak of food-borne infections from tainted greens since spinach contaminated with E.coli caused 205 illnesses and three deaths in 2006.
But there have been several smaller outbreaks linked to bagged salads since then, including a spinach-based E.coli outbreak that sickened 58 people in 2011, and 80 people who contracted E.coli from vegetable sources alone in 2012.
Though these salads are often "triple washed" they are not always clean. Some tests done by Consumer Reports as recently as 2010 found feces and other contaminants in many brands, sometimes at alarmingly high levels.
How the greens were packaged, whether they were organic, or whether they were "baby greens" made no difference in whether they were contaminated.
If you are attached to those packaged greens, it is probably best to buy them as far from the "use by" date as possible and store them at as cold a temperature (40 degrees Fahrenheit or below) as possible. And you should always give them an extra rinse.
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