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Iowa agency knows source of cyclospora outbreak but won’t talk

Since mid-June, 372 people have reported becoming sick from the parasite cyclospora, which can cause weeks of severe diarrhea, among other symptoms. The food poisoning outbreak has sickened people in at least 16 states, with the victims concentrated in Iowa and Nebraska. The culprit, according to Iowa state food safety investigators, appears to be prepackaged salad — likely one containing both iceberg and romaine lettuce, red cabbage, and carrots.

Beyond that, the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals isn’t releasing any information about the brand name of the bagged salads or whether it was sold in grocery stores or distributed only to restaurants.

“Typically, we release the information if it enhances public safety,” said the department’s food-safety chief in a recent interview. In this case, however, the agency doesn’t see any point in releasing that information since the tainted salad is no longer on shelves and the brand name isn’t one that many consumers would recognize. Moreover, the salads could have been re-branded for sale in stores. He did say that the salads were sold in more than one restaurant chain, but he wouldn’t identify which ones.

Iowa wasn’t able to pinpoint a single, specific ingredient that was contaminated with the cyclospora parasite. Nor was it able to determine where, exactly, the tainted produce came from. A simultaneous federal investigation is seeking answers to those questions.

One attorney who has handled a number of food poisoning lawsuits commented that the agency wasn’t doing itself any favors by being so close-mouthed, especially in the Internet age. “This information is going to come out. It’s just a question of when, not whether,” he told the Des Moines Register, adding that consumers should be given the chance to judge for themselves whether the information is useful. When public health agencies withhold it, he says, “it makes it look like they care more about the industry than they do about the consumers, and that’s exactly the wrong message to be sending people.”

For those sickened, however, it’s more than a chilling message. Keeping the information about who manufactured and distributed the tainted food from potential plaintiffs makes it harder to identify who is responsible for their illnesses. That said, that lawyer was right: the information is bound to come out.

Source: The Des Moines Register, “Bagged salads blamed for cyclospora food-poisoning outbreak,” Tony Leys, July 30, 2013

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