In response to growing frustration and increased media attention surrounding the response to the ongoing Cyclospora outbreak, which has now sickened at least 418 people in 16 states, Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) on Thursday “demanded” answers from federal health officials about why they have not given the public more information.
Citing concerns raised by a handful of high-profile food safety experts, DeLauro, a key appropriator, wrote a letter to both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pointing out that a full month into the investigation “there is minimal information available to the public on the possible cause(s) of this outbreak from federal agencies.”
The cause of the outbreak, it seems, is in dispute. As Food Safety News has reported, state officials in Iowa and Nebraska, which have 146 and 81 cases, respectively, have identified bagged salad mix containing romaine and iceberg lettuce, cabbage, and carrots as the likely culprit, but have offered no more detail on which of the ingredients in the mix, or which company or distributor, might be to blame.
Federal health officials and the other states involved have not pinned the outbreak on a source. Both CDC and FDA have said they are still pursuing other leads.
“I recognize it’s frustrating when we’re not able to give all the information people want at this point in the outbreak investigation,” said CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds on Wednesday. “However, what we have learned from Iowa and Nebraska gives us a strong lead on a possible source for the outbreak.”
FDA spokesman Doug Karas said the agency’s Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation (CORE) Network is “following the strongest leads provided by the states and has prioritized the ingredients of the salad mix identified by Iowa for the traceback investigation, but is following other leads as well.”
Karas said the traceback process is “labor intensive and painstaking work, requiring the collection, review and analysis of hundreds and at times thousands of invoices and shipping documents” and noted FDA has dedicated at least 17 staff to working on the outbreak.
In her letter to the agencies Thursday, DeLauro requested details and timelines on how exactly the inter-agency investigation has unfolded. She asked for a timeline that includes data and specific dates that “indicated possible associations between the outbreak and particular food products” and details on when such information was shared with states, industry, and the public.
“Understandably, investigations of disease outbreaks, including foodborne disease, must be thorough and thoughtful,” wrote DeLauro. “At the same time, the public was left in the dark as an outbreak leaped from 2 cases to nearly 400 and questions around data and information sharing abound.”
DeLauro asked why neither Iowa nor Nebraska has released “the brand, producer, or country of origin of the food product associated with the cases within their state.” She also asked whether FDA or CDC consider it acceptable to identify the source of an outbreak and withhold that information and, if so, to provide the rationale and legal justification.
If regulators know the source and are “intentionally” withholding that information, wrote DeLauro, it would be “an alarming precedent and incredible disappointment to consumers who expect a transparent federal food safety system that protects the public health.”
Cyclospora, a microscopic parasite that can be transferred via contaminated food or water, can cause infection, or cyclosporiasis. Common symptoms include watery diarrhea, loss of appetite, and weight loss, according to CDC, and usually begin about a week after exposure.