Citing the discovery of an infectious parasite in domestic produce this summer, the head of the FDA yesterday committed to using science to address foodborne pathogens.

A special government testing program found the Cyclospora parasite in U.S. cilantro earlier this year, marking the first time ever that the microscopic animal had been confirmed on domestic produce, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

In the following weeks the FDA found Cyclospora on domestically grown romaine lettuce, marking the second confirmation of the parasite in U.S. produce. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb says twice is more than enough.

“We must continue to put in place science-based measures to prevent microbial contamination,” Gottlieb said Sept. 18 in a special announcement. “… New risks will continue to emerge. Our system needs to be rigorous, nimble, and proactive in order to confront new challenges.”

Gottlieb promised that domestic oversight efforts will “evolve to confront this new risk.”

New risks from the parasite were front of mind for consumers across the country this summer. First Del Monte vegetable-dip trays were implicated in an outbreak. Later, a second and unrelated outbreak was traced to McDonald’s salads. Together the outbreaks saw more than 650 people confirmed with parasitic infections, called cyclosporiasis. 

Investigators could not determine what on the Del Monte trays of pre-cut vegetables and dip was the source of the Cyclospora. The FDA commissioner said the investigation did, however, reinforce the idea that U.S. produce growers are facing a challenge previously associated with only imported fruits and vegetables.

“Our traceback efforts to determine the source of the contamination indicate that the ingredients could have come from either domestic or imported sources,” Gottlieb said.

During the investigation of the outbreak associated with McDonald’s salads, an unopened bag of salad mix produced for the fast food chain by Fresh Express tested positive for Cyclospora. Traceback on the romaine lettuce and carrots in the salad mix showed the produce “came from primarily domestic growers,” according to the FDA commissioner. 

In the course of the McDonald’s-Fresh Express traceback, FDA investigators tested domestically grown romaine lettuce. Two samples were positive for Cyclospora. Those two samples were not from locations associated with the romaine in the salad outbreak, according to the FDA commissioner. 

“None of the romaine lettuce associated with these positive test results for Cyclospora went into the marketplace and all of the produce suspected of being contaminated was destroyed,” Gottlieb said in his announcement yesterday.

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