The latest foodborne illness outbreak had McDonald’s removing salads containing potentially contaminated lettuce from about 3,000 locations in the Midwest last week. The culprit? A parasite called cyclospora.
“Humans are the only hosts for cyclospora, and this species infects people when they ingest water or food — often produce — contaminated with human fecal matter,” says Amesh Adalja, M.D., a Pittsburgh-based physician board-certified in infectious diseases and a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
While some people luck out and never experience the symptoms of cyclospora infection, or cyclosporiasis, for most, gastrointestinal illness — including diarrhea, abdominal cramps, flu-like fever and chills — develops, usually within a week of exposure. Symptoms can continue from one to seven weeks.
This sounds a little scary (and definitely gross), but Dr. Adalja stresses cyclosporiasis isn’t usually something to be worried about. “People who get it can be readily treated with medications, such as oral antibiotics,” he says. “It is not a deadly infection.”
Unfortunately, widespread outbreaks due to contaminated food are becoming increasingly common. “Thanks to industrialization and refrigeration, we now have the ability to move food that may be contaminated all over the world,” Dr. Adalja says.
Minimizing exposure should be the goal, because you may not be able to totally prevent exposure — especially when eating outside of your home.
“As an individual, just make sure you’re washing your hands before handling food, washing fruits and vegetables thoroughly and refrigerating promptly,” Dr. Adalja says. Depending on the type of produce you’re preparing, he recommends removing visible debris while surface rinsing or scrubbing for about 10 to 15 seconds.
While the first cases of this particular cyclosporiasis outbreak were reported in the middle of May, Dr. Adalja warns that we may see an uptick in the number of cases over the next several days due to cyclospora’s weeklong incubation period coupled with both the duration of symptoms and public awareness.
If you do develop symptoms consistent with cyclospora exposure, particularly if you’ve eaten a salad in the affected areas, speak with your doctor.