Origin of salad-linked outbreak remains a mystery


STATES WITH REPORTED CASES

Arkansas

Connecticut

Florida

Georgia

Illinois

Iowa

Kansas

Minnesota

Missouri

Nebraska

New Jersey

New York

Ohio

Texas

Wisconsin

— Associated Press

FOUR CASES IN GEORGIA

Georgia Department of Public Health officials say they’re investigating four cases of a gastrointestinal illness that has sickened more than 370 people. Department spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said Wednesday that three Georgia women and a man have fallen ill with cyclosporiasis. One case required hospitalization.

Officials are unsure of what caused the Georgia illnesses.

— Associated Press

Nearly 400 people across the country have been sickened by cyclospora, a lengthy intestinal illness usually contracted by eating contaminated food. But if you’re looking to find out exactly where it came from, you may be out of luck.

Federal officials warned Wednesday that it was too early to say whether the outbreak of the rare parasite reported in at least 15 states was over.

Health officials in Nebraska and Iowa say they’ve traced cases there to prepackaged salad. They haven’t revealed the company that packaged the salad or where it was sold, explaining only that most if not all of it wasn’t grown locally.

The lack of information has fueled concern from consumers and food safety advocates who argue that companies should be held accountable when outbreaks happen, and customers need the information about where outbreaks came from to make smart food choices.

“If you want the free market to work properly, then you need to let people have the information they need to make informed decisions,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in class-action food-safety lawsuits.

Mark Hutson, who owns a Save-Mart grocery story in Lincoln, said he was unaware of customers who had raised concern about the product, which was unusual in situations involving foodborne illnesses. But Hutson said the lack of specific brand information threatened to hurt all providers, including the good actors who did nothing wrong.

“I think there was so little information as to what was causing the problem, that people just weren’t sure what to do,” he said. “Frankly, we would prefer to have the names out there.”

Authorities said they still hadn’t determined whether the cases of cyclospora in the different states are connected.

“It’s too early to say for sure whether it’s over, and thus too early to say there’s no risk of still getting sick,” said María-Belén Moran, spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Only Iowa and Nebraska officials had directly linked the outbreak in their states to a salad mix of iceberg and romaine lettuce, carrots and red cabbage.

The product was widely distributed in Iowa by wholesalers who could have supplied the bagged salad mix to all types of food establishments, including restaurants and grocery stores, Iowa Food and Consumer Safety Bureau chief Steven Mandernach said.

Mandernach said at least 80 percent of the vegetables were grown and processed outside both Iowa and Nebraska. He said officials haven’t confirmed the origins of 20 percent and may never know because victims can’t always remember what they ate.

Iowa law allows public health officials to withhold the identities of any person or business affected by an outbreak. However, business names can be released to the public if the state epidemiologist or public health director determines that disclosing the information is needed to protect public safety.

Mandernach said there is no immediate threat, so his office is not required to release information about where the product came from. He said state officials believe the affected salad already has spoiled and is no longer in the supply chain.

Nebraska public health officials said they still hadn’t traced the exact origins of the outbreaks.