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FDA names Taylor Farms as source in parasite outbreak

4:43 PM, Aug 2, 2013   |    comments
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(NBC NEWS) -- Taylor Farms of Mexico, a division of a California-based produce supplier whose greens go to national restaurants, is responsible for shipping parasite-tainted salad mix that has sickened consumers in Nebraska and Iowa, federal health officials said Friday. 

Food and Drug Administration officials did not say whether the same greens are tied to a cyclospora outbreak or outbreaks that have sickened at least 400 people in 16 U.S. states. 

"The FDA traceback investigation found that illness clusters at four restaurants were traced to a common supplier, Taylor Farms de Mexico, S. de R.L. de C.V.," the FDA said in a statement.

FDA's investigation did not implicate salad mix packages sold in grocery stores, officials said. Taylor Farms has been cooperating with the agency, they added. 

The grower is part of Taylor Farms, a Salinas, Calif.-based firm that supplies lettuce and cut vegetables to national restaurant chains and grocery stores. Taylor Farms has 11 processing plants in the U.S. and one in San Miguel, Mexico, according to the company website. 

FDA officials, in conjunction with company leaders, will conduct an environmental assessment of the processing facility in Mexico to determine the probable cause of the outbreak. State officials had said the salad mix included romaine and iceberg lettuce, along with carrots and red cabbage. A 2011 inspection found no "notable issues," the FDA said. 

Taylor Farms has a history of recalling potentially contaminated leafy greens, including a February 2013 recall of baby spinach over fears it was tainted with Enterohemorrhagic E. coli, or EHEC, a particularly virulent bacterium that can cause severe infection and illness. The firm recalled bagged hearts of romaine in 2012 for listeria risk and bagged salad in 2011 over worries about salmonella contamination.

Company officials did not return calls from NBC News.

Food safety experts have criticized the investigation of the cyclospora outbreak, which began with two cases in Iowa on June 28, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of the illnesses were reported from mid-June through early July. 

Michael Osterholm, Minnesota's former state epidemiologist who now heads the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said the search for the source of the rare parasite took too long and wasn't as thorough or targeted as it should have been.

"I think it's really a mess," Osterholm told NBC News. "To me it's a situation where we need a major review."

Osterholm said state investigators, including those in Iowa and Nebraska, which first tagged premixed salad as the source of the outbreak this week, didn't conduct case-control studies that would have quickly isolated the cause.

But Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, the Iowa state epidemiologist, has defended her state's response, saying that cyclospora is a difficult bug to detect and track because of its long incubation period and special testing requirements.

States that have reported illnesses include Iowa, Texas, Nebraska, Florida, Wisconsin, Georgia, Illinois, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio.

Cyclospora is a parasite excreted in human stool. Illnesses have been associated with contaminated water or food. It causes gastrointestinal symptoms including prolonged diarrhea, fatigue, loss of appetite, vomiting and other flu-like symptoms.

Cyclospora infections are rare in the U.S., but past outbreaks have been associated with contaminated fresh produce including fruit and herbs. Raspberries imported from Guatemala were responsible for a 1996 outbreak that sickened 1,465 people in the U.S. and Canada and also for a 1997 outbreak that made more than 1,000 people ill, CDC records show.

JoNel Aleccia is a senior health reporter at NBC News. Reach her on Twitter at @JoNel_Aleccia or send her an email

JoNel Aleccia, NBC News

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