The CDC, FDA, and state officials have declared an official end to the Del Monte Cyclospora Outbreak that caused some 250 documented illnesses in people who had purchased pre-packaged trays of Del Monte Fresh vegetables.
As of September 5th, the outbreak is officially over. The CDC has reported that the number of cyclosporasis cases in the US have returned to baseline levels. Investigators at the FDA were unable to come up with a definitive cause for the outbreak: according to a statement on their website, they conducted a review of the supplier and distribution information for the vegetable trays to see if they could determine the point at which cyclospora was introduced. Unfortunately, that traceback investigation did not yield fruit: the FDA reports that that they could not identify a “single source or potential point of contamination for any of the items that comprised the recalled vegetable trays.”
‘Tis the Season
Summer is cyclospora season, so there were multiple cyclospora outbreaks on hand when the Del Monte customers began to get sick. It was late May, and a dining party at the Sonoran Grill in Minneapolis subsequently fell ill with cyclosporiasis. Some 17 people were sickened with the tiny parasite, which causes symptoms akin to food poisoning. Shortly after, the first victims of this summer’s McDonalds cyclospora outbreak would begin to fall ill.
Concurrently, evidence began to come to light that these weren’t the only outbreaks of the parasite rocking Minnesota. The Minnesota Health Department found that several individuals had fallen ill after purchasing trays of pre-prepared vegetables from the convenience store.
The veggies in question were sold under the Del Monte Fresh brand. They included broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, and dill dip, and came in 6 ounce and 12 ounce varieties. The convenience store selling them was Kwik Trip, a chain of convenience stores that can be found through Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa.
In response to the outbreak, Del Monte Fresh Produce voluntarily recalled several of their veggie trays. The recall covered a “limited quantity” of the 6, 12, and 28 ounce trays. The affected products were sold not just in Wisconsin and Minnesota, but also in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Michigan. Locations in those states included Kwik Trip and Kwik Star marts in Minnesota and Wisconsin but also several other businesses: Demond’s, Sentry, Potash, Meehan’s, Country Market, Food Max Supermarket and Peapod all stocked the trays prior to the recall.
How exactly the outbreak started isn’t clear. What is clear is that cyclospora outbreaks are more common during the summer. The Minnesota Department of Public Health reports that these events are most common between the months of May and August.
Why would that be? It’s likely related to the fact that our summer corresponds with the wet seasons in many countries closer to the equator. Down there, summer means storms: there’s a marked increase in rainfall, and those heavy rains have consequences. Sanitation systems are often filled with runoff until they’ve reached the point of rupture or flooding. Agricultural infrastructure is sometimes inundated. It’s an environment that’s conducive to the reproduction and spread of pathogens, including cyclospora.
Sure, you think, that makes sense. But what does the wet season in the Caribbean and Central America have to do with me? Here’s the rub: many of the vegetables that are consumed in the United States are grown south of the border. Many of the vegetable wholesalers in the United States rely on suppliers who grow their veggies in developing countries to the south. During the summer, the vegetables they’re buying are sourced from places where cyclospora is common.
That’s one theory, anyways. I wrote something very similar for Make Food Safe earlier this summer. Since then, the FDA has failed to determine a source for the cyclospora outbreak. Also, news has broke that the only vegetable on Del Monte’s trays from outside of the United States was the broccoli, which was grown in Mexico. So perhaps we were wrong about this one, and the summer of cyclospora has more complicated or as of yet unknown causes.
When exposed to harsh conditions, the parasite can form what’s called an oocyst – a tiny, sporelike form that’s similar to an egg. In this stage, the cyclospora is protected by a thick shell, and it can survive your digestive system and most of the dangers of the outside world once it passes from your body in poop. Weirdly, oocysts aren’t the first stage of life for cyclospora: they’re the mature stage. The parasite reproduces asexually by division, so there’s no need for eggs. Very strange indeed.
Kwik Trip and Del Monte caught a lawsuit for their apparent involvement in the outbreak. The suit was filed in Wisconsin state court by an individual. They claim to have contracted cyclospora after eating vegetables from a Del Monte tray sold at a Kwik Trip in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
According to court documents, the plaintiff bought not just one but several trays of Del Monte vegetables from that Eau Claire location in late May. By May 30th, they were showing the classic signs of cyclosporiasis, many of which are similar to fatigue. They checked into a hospital, which confirmed that they had indeed fallen ill with cyclosporiasis and began to administer treatment.
According the suit, the claimant was still suffering from some symptoms of the illness well after their initial bout. Some of the symptoms of cyclosporiasis, like fatigue, can persist well after the initial food-poisoning like symptoms have passed.
By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)