By Dennis Thompson
MONDAY, Aug. 5 (HealthDay News) -- The source of a widespread stomach bug outbreak has been traced in at least two states to a Mexican farm that supplied salad mix to Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants, U.S. health officials report.
At least 400 cases of infection with the foodborne cyclospora parasite have been reported so far in 16 states and New York City since the outbreak began in June, according to the latest statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On Sunday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced on its website that illnesses in Nebraska and Iowa have now been traced to Taylor Farms de Mexico, the Mexican branch of Taylor Farms in Salinas, Calif. The FDA said that it was trying to determine whether the prepackaged salad mix was the source of infections in the other states.
"It is not yet clear whether the cases reported from other states are all part of the same outbreak," the agency said in a statement. "The investigation of increased cases of cyclosporiasis in other states continues."
Orlando-based Darden Restaurants, which owns both the Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurant chains, said in a statement that the FDA announcement was "new information," the Associated Press reported.
"Nothing we have seen prior to this announcement gave us any reason to be concerned about the products we've received from this supplier," the Darden statement said.
Taylor Farms Chairman and CEO Bruce Taylor said in an email that the plant involved produced 48 million servings of salads for thousands of restaurants in the Midwest and eastern U.S. in June, the month the outbreak started, the AP reported. He added that the plant has an extensive water-testing program.
"All our tests have been negative and we have no evidence of cyclospora in our product," Taylor said in the email. "We are working closely with the FDA to continue this investigation."
Taylor noted that Taylor Farms de Mexico does not supply Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants in Texas, the state that has the second highest number of illnesses in the outbreak.
According to the CDC, 113 of the illnesses reported so far were in Texas. Iowa has had 146 illnesses and Nebraska has 81.
Meanwhile, U.S. health officials said the overall investigation continues.
In a posting on its website, the CDC said that it "will continue to work with federal, state and local partners in the investigation to determine whether this conclusion applies to the increase in cases of cyclosporiasis in other states. It is not yet clear whether the cases from all of the states are part of the same outbreak."
Prior outbreaks of cyclospora infection have typically been caused by tainted produce, the agency noted.
Although no one has died from cyclosporiasis, "at least 22 persons reportedly have been hospitalized in five states," the CDC said. Most people got sick between mid-June through early July.
According to the CDC, cases have now been reported in Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin.
One expert said that while cyclospora can make people very ill, it is not usually life-threatening.
"On the infectious disease scale, this ranks well below the more notorious and dangerous ailments like E. coli and salmonella," said Dr. Lewis Marshall Jr., chairman of the outpatient services at Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center in New York City.
"It is unlikely to be fatal, but certainly can make one's life miserable," he added. "Symptoms include crampy abdominal pain, watery diarrhea, loss of appetite, bloating, nausea, fatigue, fever, headache and body aches."
Cases of cyclosporiasis are caused by a single-celled parasite and cannot be spread from person to person; it has to be ingested via contaminated water or foods such as fruit and vegetables, according to Dr. Monica Parise, chief of the parasitic diseases branch at the CDC.