Over the past month and a half, more than 350 people in 15 different states have become sick after contracting cyclospora, a rare parasite that causes diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and other flu-like symptoms. Twenty one of those people have been hospitalized because of it. The parasite is almost certainly a foodborne illness — but federal and state food safety experts still have no idea how exactly it’s being spread.
“We got it down to five potential vegetables,” Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, Iowa’s medical epidemiologist, told NBC News. But Quinlisk wouldn’t say which vegetables those are — and neither would the federal officials at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The CDC and the FDA say they’re continuing to investigate all leads related to the outbreak, which is especially concentrated in Iowa and Nebraska. But spokespeople from both agencies have been vague about the details. They haven’t confirmed whether the produce in question was imported or grown within the U.S. It’s also unclear whether all of the people who have fallen ill are part of the same outbreak from the same vegetable source, or whether there have been multiple different recent outbreaks.
Cyclospora is a parasite found in fecal matter that can potentially be spread by contaminated water. If people become infected with it, they can be easily treated with antibiotics — but, since cyclospora has an incubation period of up to a week, many people don’t realize they have it at first. And once the symptoms do display, many people might assume they simply have the flu and avoid seeking medical treatment.
Some food safety experts have criticized the government for being too slow to identify the source of the outbreak. “We should know, because we could have a second wave,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and the University of Minnesota, told NBC News. Osterholm pointed out that the relatively rare cyclospora should be easier to track than other foodborne illnesses, like salmonella, that are far more common.
The CDC estimates that roughly one in every six Americans get sick from contaminated food each year, and the cost of treating foodborne illnesses tops $150 billion annually. Nevertheless, rounds of budget cuts have left government agencies struggling to keep up with food safety inspections — especially in the wake of across-the-board sequester cuts, which will likely lead to an estimated 600 fewer inspectors doing their jobs.
Even though imports account for about 15 percent of Americans’ food supply — including 20 percent of fresh vegetables, like the ones that may be carrying cyclospora — the FDA says it only has the capacity to inspect 2 percent of the food that originates outside the United States. In 2011, the agency inspected just 6 percent of domestic food producers and 0.4 percent of imports. On Friday, federal officials proposed two new food safety regulations that would put more responsibility for food inspections on private companies and their suppliers.