Tainted Salad: Do You Have the Right to Know Who Sold It?

Plenty is known about the produce that caused the latest round of foodborne illness—except the name of the company that sold it.

bagged salad illness

A picture of good health? (Photo: massdistraction/Flickr)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Here’s what public health officials say they know about the recent cyclospora outbreak that has sickened nearly 400 people, hospitalized 22, and has spread across 16 states, including Iowa, Nebraska, Texas and Florida.

They say the illness can be traced to salad mix that likely contained iceberg and romaine lettuces, carrots and red cabbage. They know the produce was likely harvested in early June, that it was distributed to grocery stores and restaurants, and that it’s no longer on shelves. But if you want to know the brand name associated with the tainted salad, you’re out of luck—at least for the time being.

“Consumers have a right to know who poisoned them,” says Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney who specializes in foodborne-illness outbreaks. “We know it’s a mixed lettuce outbreak. Health officials have given us those details. Isn’t it appropriate for the public to know what happened? Whether it was a failure of an irrigation system, or that the company was buying product from a farm in Mexico? When you hide information from the market, you pervert the free market system. It only works if people have adequate information.”

Cyclospora cayetanesis is actually a parasite, not a pathogen. People usually contract it after consuming food or water contaminated with feces. It infects the small intestine, causing diarrhea. Other symptoms may include loss of appetite, weight loss, stomach cramps/pain, bloating, increased gas, nausea, fatigue and sometimes vomiting. It’s not pleasant.

Part of the hesitation by health officials on naming specific names may stem from the difficulty in isolating this exact outbreak. Cyclospora infections are fairly uncommon in the U.S., so health departments may not routinely test for it. (That means it’s likely more widespread than has been reported so far.) Consumers who become ill often do so a week or more after consuming a contaminated product. Trying to remember what you ate for every meal weeks ago can make tracing an outbreak difficult. Add in a multi-ingredient product like mixed salad, and determining whether it was the lettuce, cabbage or carrots that caused the illness can be tricky.

A spokesperson from the CDC tells TakePart that when the source of the tainted salad is confirmed, it will most likely be announced by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

According to the Associated Press, Corey Egel, a California Department of Public Health spokesperson, said “the leafy greens being implicated in this outbreak were not grown or processed in California.”

Samantha Cabaluna, spokesperson for bagged lettuce giant Earthbound Farm, has also confirmed with TakePart that they are not the source of the outbreak.

The Omaha World-Herald reports that the produce did not come from farms in Iowa or Nebraska, where the outbreak first exploded. Anne O’Keefe, senior epidemiologist with the Douglas County Health Department in Nebraska, tells the newspaper that the unnamed company linked to the outbreak has farms in the U.S. and in Mexico, and says that federal health officials, “have been to the farm they suspect is the source of the outbreak.” Vegetables from local farmers markets were also not involved in the outbreak, according to the story.

This isn’t the first time public health officials have concealed the name of a company involved in an outbreak. A multi-state salmonella outbreak in late 2011 was initially identified by the CDC only as “Mexican-style, fast-food Restaurant Chain A.” It wasn’t until February 2012 that the chain was identified as Taco Bell. 

Whether or not the current cyclospora outbreak is over is still uncertain. If you’re worried you may be at risk, there are a couple of good Q&A pieces (here and here) that are worth checking out. The takeaway though, may not be that comforting—unless you grow all of your own food, you’re at risk.

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