Public health officials are warning of an outbreak of the intestinal parasite cyclospora, commonly found in imported produce and causing food poisoning-like symptoms.
So far 83 cases of cyclosporiasis have been reported to the Public Health Agency of Canada in Ontario, B.C., Quebec and Alberta. Officials have not yet determined the source of this outbreak but say past outbreaks in Canada and the U.S. have been due to imported produce, specifically pre-packaged salad mix, basil, cilantro, berries, mesclun lettuce and snow peas.
“Cyclospora is a microscopic single-celled parasite that is passed in people’s feces. If it comes in contact with food or water, it can infect the people who consume it. This causes an intestinal illness called cyclosporiasis,” the Public Health Agency reports.
Food may become contaminated with cyclospora during the growth, harvesting or transportation phases, particularly by contact with infected food handlers during packaging or through contaminated irrigation or tap water.
The outbreak appears to have begun in May and the last reported case was on July 18. Most cases have been seen in Ontario, however there have been three reported in B.C., five in Quebec and one in Alberta.
Human feces and toilet paper found in Mexican farms
Meanwhile in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration reported last week 384 people across 26 states have contracted cyclosporiasis due to contaminated cilantro imported from Mexico. This is the fourth consecutive year the FDA has investigated cilantro imports from Mexico. A report issued earlier this year states investigators found “objectionable conditions” at eight farms in Puebla, Mexico which supply cilantro to the U.S.
The report says conditions at these farms included:
- human feces and toilet paper found in growing fields and around facilities
- inadequately maintained and supplied toilet and hand washing facilities (no soap, no toilet paper, no running water, no paper towels) or a complete lack of toilet and hand washing facilities
- food-contact surfaces (such as plastic crates used to transport cilantro or tables where cilantro was cut and bundled) visibly dirty and not washed
- water used for purposes such as washing cilantro vulnerable to contamination from sewage/septic systems
The U.S. is currently working with Mexico to improve the safety of fresh cilantro and has prohibited imports from certain farms that do not meet criteria.
While few become seriously ill, symptoms of cyclosporiasis can feel a lot like the stomach flu that lasts from a few days to several weeks. Symptoms may seem to go away and then return one or more times before the parasite passes. Specific symptoms of the foodborne illness include:
- Watery diarrhea
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
- stomach cramps
- abdominal bloating
- increased gas
Who is at risk
The Public Health Agency of Canada says people with weakened immune systems, the elderly and children are most at risk of contracting cyclosporiasis. Because this parasite is found in tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world, anyone who visits or lives in these areas are at an increased risk of developing the parasite.
In Canada, anyone who eats imported fresh produce is also at risk.
Because abstaining for imported produce is difficult for many people throughout Canada, the Public Health Agency suggests a number of ways to mitigate chances of ingesting cyclospora.
Consumers should follow these safety tips when handling food:
- Wash fresh fruits and vegetables before eating them, clean counters and cutting boards and wash your hands regularly.
- Keep refrigerators clean and at a temperature below 4 °C (40 °F). Install a thermometer in your fridge to be sure.
- Keep raw food away from other food while shopping, storing, preparing and serving foods.
- Read labels and follow cooking and storage instructions for all food. When buying food, make sure to check the “best before” date, and if the product has expired, let the store know.
- Use warm soapy water to clean knives, cutting boards, utensils, your hands and any surfaces that have come in contact with food, especially meat and fish.
- Refrigerate or freeze perishable food within two hours of cooking.
- Freeze or consume leftovers within four days of cooking. Always reheat leftovers until steaming hot before eating.