Recall of the Month: Cyclospora Summer Outbreak

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the United States Department of Agriculture will remember the summer of 2018 as one of their busiest periods flagging contaminated food products.  They issued a public health alert July 30 due to concern for possible contamination of Cyclospora (an intestinal parasite) in salad and wraps marketed by Trader Joe’s, Kroger and Walgreens.  This alert came on the heels of McDonald’s pulling salads in Illinois and Iowa linked to cases of cyclosporiasis.

Foodborne Illnesses USA

Annually, the FDA estimates 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses as a result of contaminated food – roughly 1 in 6 Americans.  These illnesses result in an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.  The disease-causing bacteria that contaminate food are at high risk for the most vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women, young children, senior adults and people with weaken immune systems.

Are foodborne illnesses, especially in light of the consumer demand for convenience products (e.g., pre-packaged salads, wraps) and the health & wellness trend to eat more produce, occurring more frequently?  FoodNet, the surveillance unit of the CDC revealed that the number of outbreaks reported to their National Outbreak Reporting System by state and local health departments has remained stable over the years until an upswing in 2017.  Their data indicates the incidents of foodborne illness related to numerous pathogens like E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, etc., have increased 96% in 2017 compared to the 2014 to 2016 average.  Within this data, they reported infections from Cyclospora, cited as the cause of the recent McDonald’s recall, increased significantly.

Cyclospora, is an intestinal parasite most commonly found in produce grown in tropical/subtropical environments.  Past outbreaks resulting in an infection of the intestines known as cyclosporiasis were attributed to imported fresh produce (e.g., Guatemalan raspberries, snow peas, basil and mesclun lettuce).  Intestinal health issues related to cyclosporiasis are diarrhea, stomach cramping and nausea that result in weight loss and fatigue.

McDonald’s Recall

In the middle of July, health authorities in Illinois and Iowa reported over 100 cases of cyclosporiasis linked to McDonald’s salads.  As a precaution, McDonald’s removed salads from approximately 3,000 locations.  The FDA continued their investigation well into August focusing in on McDonald’s distributors and growers of romaine lettuce and carrots.  They updated their lab-related data and reported that the outbreak impacted 476 people in 15 midwestern states.  In addition, the FDA revealed the leading source of the contamination issues were linked to the Streamwood, Illinois processing plant of McDonald’s salad blend supplier, Fresh Express.

Given the severity of the Cyclospora outbreak and the uncertainty of how it originated, Fresh Express implemented a panel of food safety and industry experts – the Fresh Express Blue-Ribbon panel. While past Cyclospora outbreaks originated in Central America, the company is now concerned the source of contamination could be fresh produce grown in the U.S. during the spring and summer months.  According to John Olivo, Fresh Express’s president: “The purpose of the Fresh Express Blue-Ribbon Panel is to assemble an interdisciplinary group of independent scientific experts to better understand Cyclospora’s mode of action and how the industry can better guard against future outbreaks.” The panel will collaborate with the FDA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health agencies.

Moving Forward

It is crucial for food, a multi-trillion-dollar industry, to implement sound food safety procedures.  Industry innovators have begun utilizing blockchain technology as a solution to facilitate end-to-end traceability to improve supply chain, plus when it comes to food recalls, locate the issue quickly to remove contaminated products from distribution, shelves, even menus.  In the interim before blockchain technology is universal, food safety training solutions will be paramount to reduce the risk of foodborne illness, especially when it comes to produce.  Training should start in the executive suite and filter down to online and in-person training for employees on the front lines.  In addition, it would be prudent for companies to utilize third-party inspectors to validate that all food safety protocols are being implemented.

Over the last decade, the annual per capita consumption of vegetables increased significantly, especially among consumers under the age of 40; fresh produce by 52 percent (source: NPD).   Consequently, operators are menuing healthier items like salads and wraps.  The crusade to make these products safe from farm to plate is now a top priority.