Sometimes, writing these Foodservice Monthly articles, I wonder if I’m going to run out of subjects. But fortunately, or unfortunately (better said), there always seems to be a new foodborne illness story in the news at the time of writing. The latest story in the news is the outbreak of the parasite, cyclospora found in produce that has sickened at least 321 to date across 15 states. Eighteen people have been hospitalized as a result. The Center of Disease Control is still working with the Food and Drug Administration in the investigation of the source of the outbreak.
Cyclospora is a one celled parasite that is typically found in tropical environments and it has two life stages. A dormant stage called an oocyst is swallowed by people when ingesting the produce, which become active in our bodies. The symptoms that follow can be: flu like symptoms, i.e. low grade fever, lots of gas, bloating, fatigue, vomiting and watery diarrhea.
Cyclospora finds its way into our food through human feces, where it can contaminate water, fruits and vegetables. Humans are the only known hosts for cyclospora. Farm workers with no bathrooms or portable hand washing stations in the crop fields are the most common source of cyclospora contamination in our produce.
Diagnosis is confirmed with a stool sample being tested and is treated with an antibiotic called Bactrim for 7-10 days. All people are at risk of getting ill with cyclospora, but as usual, high risk populations are at higher risk to be hospitalized or die as a result of the infection due to dehydration from prolonged diarrhea.
What can we do to avoid cyclospora infection? Two months ago we wrote about produce and how to wash the produce properly as per the Food and Drug Administration recommendation. The FDA says that rinsing the produce under water a little bit warmer (around 10than the produce itself as sufficient. Now, as an additional step, the FDA is recommending that you dry all kinds of fresh produce with a paper towel to wipe away any residue that might still be clinging after a rinse. If you can, consider using a brush to clean the produce as this will make it more effective to reduce microorganisms on a surface. Consider peeling fruits and vegetables to remove the skin. The CDC confirms that bleach and iodine do not kill cyclospora.
This also brings up the issue of ensuring that good water supplies for irrigation of crops besides the water used for water baths to wash/rinse produce. Additionally, surfaces that are used to clean produce in the process of manufacturing should be cleaned and sanitized on a regular basis. Knowing that humans are the only host body for cyclospora, it is imperative that operators ensure infected employees are not working directly or indirectly with produce and proper personal hygiene should be emphasized to all employees to avoid human fecal contact with our produce. For this reason, employee training is imperative on proper hygiene and hand washing.
Here’s the problem, the source of cyclospora is still unknown to date on July 26, 2013. I end this article quoting myself with the same closing paragraph from the article two months ago titled, ‘Shouldn’t Our Produce be Safe from Contamination? … For Real’ “The USDA and FDA are in the process of setting up stronger supervision and stricter standards for growing, harvesting, packing and holding of fruits and vegetables that are to be eaten raw. The rule will increase the standards of growing, harvesting, packing and holding fruits and vegetables. It will also “increase vigilance during irrigation and washing of produce, worker hygiene, cleanliness of materials used in growing soils such as fertilizers and manure, management of animals that could, enter crop fields and contribute contamination, and sanitation of processing equipment.”
I think this is a good thing. I just wish they would make it mandatory by law for the farmers to provide porta potties to those picking the crops. I also wish they would make it required to provide portable hand washing stations in all countries for those employees handling produce even in the fields.