UPDATE: July 28, 2020: Nearly 700 people have been sickened in this outbreak — 641 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 37 in Canada, according to the country's Public Health Agency. A lawsuit was filed against Fresh Express and Berkot's Super Foods in Illinois, which had the largest number of cases.
UPDATE: July 10, 2020: The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention say there are 509 total cases in the United States related to this outbreak. A total of 33 people have been hospitalized. A potentially related outbreak has also been reported in Canada.
- The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are investigating a multi-state outbreak of Cyclospora infections that are linked to bagged garden salads sold at Aldi, Hy-Vee, Walmart and Jewel-Osco stores. Fresh Express is the manufacturer of each of these recalled salads.
- According to FDA statistics, there have been 206 total reported cases with no deaths. Affected states are Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. Grocery stores in the Midwest selling mixes containing iceberg lettuce, red cabbage, and carrots have issued recalls of their contaminated products. The FDA is investigating to see if other retailers were affected.
- Separately, Fresh Express announced a voluntary recall Saturday of dozens of products produced in the same Illinois facility after it learned from the FDA that there may be a link between those items and the Cyclospora outbreak.
Fresh Express, which is a subsidiary of Chiquita Brands, has become the latest manufacturer to come under public scrutiny for its role in salad contamination cases that have rocked the leafy greens industry in recent years. Not only have these repeated cases of foodborne illness affected sales, but now consumers are taking companies to court.
After suffering the effects of a Cyclospora infection, which include loss of appetite, weight loss, stomach cramps/pain, nausea and fatigue, among other symptoms, according to the CDC, an Iowa couple went to court seeking compensation for indignity and suffering, according to Food Safety News. The couple sued Fresh Express after Matthew Phillips, the plaintiff, was hospitalized for infection from June 7 through June 20. Although the case is still pending, the lawsuit indicates there is more at risk than just recalls for companies that are implicated in instances of lettuce contamination.
The number of infections jumped 40% between June 19 and June 26 indicating that the retailer recalls, which happened between June 20 and June 26, may have come too late for these bagged salad products that were intended for use between May and the first week of July, according to FDA findings.
"Fresh Express stringently follows all mandated regulations and implements preventive food safety measures designed to minimize potential risks," the company said in a statement. "We are working in close coordination with FDA in its continuing investigation to identify a definitive source of the current Cyclospora outbreak."
Donald W. Schaffner, a food microbiologist at Rutgers University, told The New York Times that the fact that hundreds of people are getting sick in multiple states suggests “some rather significant sanitary breakdown in the production of this food.”
It is noteworthy that this recall was for iceberg lettuce rather than romaine, which has been the culprit in several foodborne outbreaks during the past couple of years. To prevent these outbreaks, the FDA announced at the end of 2019 that it planned to collect 270 raw post-harvest samples in the California and Arizona growing regions in 2020 to test for salmonella and E. coli. Although a prudent step to help stop future occurrences of these foodborne illnesses, this testing was limited both by geography and by bacteria strain.
Cyclospora, the most recent bacteria to make an appearance in salad and cause illness, was not on the FDA’s testing list. Nor was the location in Streamwood, Illinois where the salads were produced by Fresh Express. Cyclospora is a relatively uncommon bacteria to make its way into food. According to the CDC, it is typically found in tropical and subtropical regions.
This latest outbreak compounds the woes of lettuce growers in the United States and should bring a renewed sense of urgency to reduce the frequency of bacterial infections that have plagued the popular greens. Not only is it potentially harmful to the health of consumers, but this pattern of contamination isn’t promptly improved, produce industry profits and consumer confidence in the food safety system may continue to suffer.