Naming Likely Cyclospora Source Was ‘Rush to Judgment,’ Says ‘Perishable Pundit’
Naming Taylor Farms de Mexico as the likely source of this summer’s national Cyclosporiasis outbreak was a “rush to judgment” still without sufficient evidence, says “Perishable Pundit” Jim Prevor.
The award-winning food writer, editor and lecturer from Boca Raton, FL, says in the current digital issue of his column that “there was an unseemly rush to announce things without satisfactory evidence or even a coherent theory.” Spread of the Cyclospora parasite eventually came to involve at least 643 people in 25 states, mostly between this past June and August.
Nebraska and Iowa public health officials connected 238 cases in those two states to a salad mix produced by Taylor Farms de Mexico and mostly served up by the Darden-owned Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants. Taylor voluntarily ceased shipments for a short period to give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration time to investigate, but FDA found no evidence of the Cyclospora.
Prevor points out that, as of its latest report issued Sept. 20, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta had “no evidence of the vast majority of cases having any connection to Taylor Farms de Mexico or any other Taylor Farms operation.”
“The Number One state having cyclosporiasis is Texas,” he adds. “It has almost half the known cases, yet to quote the CDC: ‘The preliminary analysis of results from an investigation into a cluster of cases that ate at a Texas restaurant does not show a connection to Taylor Farms de Mexico. The investigation is ongoing.’”
Prevor also says that the little information made public by Iowa and Nebraska officials makes it “hard to assess the accuracy of their claims, but Darden has stated it doesn’t use Taylor Farms lettuce mix in Texas.” With his own knowledge of the fresh produce industry, Prevor speculates that parasites could have come from a single growing area and Taylor was implicated for its large volumes, but “in reality, everyone buying from that growing region was affected.”
Then he knocks down his own theory, saying, “The outbreak is so long-lasting, with illness onsets spreading over two months, this doesn’t match likely growing and harvesting patterns.”
Indeed, CDC data show the illness onsets for Iowa and Nebraska peaking almost a month before Texas. And Prevor says only a small percentage of Taylor’s produce went to Iowa and Nebraska, with no indication it was widespread in Taylor’s overall production.
In taking apart the investigation, Prevor calls it “a low tech affair” for its reliance on consumer questionnaires and what people can remember about what they ate.
This is not the first time the federal-state investigation of the Cyclospora outbreak has come in for criticism. Some prominent food safety experts were critical earlier about the slow pace of the investigation. For their part, federal investigators have said that their work is complicated.
As the editor of both print and digital products, Prevor is widely recognized for his expertise in perishable food industries and has often weighed in on food safety issues involving produce.
Cyclospora is a single-cell parasite that causes the intestinal infection known as cyclosporiasis. In its last report, CDC said the evidence suggests that not all the cases of cyclosporiasis in the various states are directly related to each other.