Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) investigators admit they failed to get a handle on a serious Cyclosporiasis outbreak that has now affected 609 people in 22 states.
It has been 56 days since the CDC first announced the outbreak of a single-celled parasite known as Cyclospora cayetanesis, and still investigators are not certain of the source of origin.
In two investigative updates, one from state epidemiologists in Iowa and Nebraska and one from the U.S. Food and Drug Administrative (FDA), a salad mix from Taylor Farms de Mexico was linked to the outbreak in those two states, reaching consumers through Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants. But CDC investigators are asking whether that conclusion can help explain the increase in ill persons with Cyclosporiasis in other states.
Those investigations have lead to a response from Taylor Farms, who suspended operations on Aug. 22. Company officials say they informed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the voluntary action, and in a release the company later said it will not resume operations without FDA clearance.
FDA said earlier this month an investigation had confirmed a number of individuals who became ill after eating salad mixes at Olive Garden and Red Lobster Restaurants in Iowa and Nebraska.
"This decision allows Taylor Farms de Mexico to focus more resources on assisting the FDA in their investigation of the June cyclospora outbreak in Iowa and Nebraska," the company said on its website Friday.
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In addition to an extended bout with diarrhea, victims infected by the parasite can suffer from nausea, abdominal pain, aches and pains, cramping and fever.
In spite of identifying salad mixes from Taylor Foods was the common source among multiple cases of the illness in two of the 22 states, the CDC says the problem may go deeper because infected individuals in other states did not appear to share that common source. Officials complain that work to trace the path of foods to one common source is labor intensive and requires a great deal of time.
Elevated concern, awareness
The latest unofficial word from CDC is they simply do not know for certain whether they are dealing with one big outbreak or several smaller outbreaks. They report they have collected medical information on 448 of the confirmed cases so far and have discovered about 8 percent of those (37 individuals) have required hospitalization. No fatalities had been reported as of Aug. 23.
Texas leads the nation with the greatest number of confirmed cases, 257 as of Friday (Aug. 23). Following were Iowa with 156 confirmed cases, Nebraska with 86 cases, Florida with 31 cases, Wisconsin (16), Illinois (11), and Arkansas (10). There were 15 additional states that reported one or more cases in July-August (22 total).
Most of the illness onset dates have ranged from mid-June through mid-July, but just over 250 cases have been added to the count so far during August.
In a time when both government officials and U.S. consumers are concerned about food safety, especially since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there has been a great deal more awareness and concern over potential risks associated with food issues, like what potentially can transpire from the time food leaves the field on the farm and begins a long trek to first a processing, packaging and shipping facility(s), and eventually to grocery aisles and consumer's kitchens. Heightened concerns over food safety in public restaurants and eateries have also made headlines and blogs in recent times.
In light of the current and evasive Cyclosporiasis outbreak and the 2011 listeria outbreak that originated on a Colorado melon farm, one of the worst food poisoning outbreaks in U.S. history, government leaders, national security experts, and medical researchers have been trying to get a handle on how to keep America's food safe. While investigators work through more cases and clues about the mysterious Cyclosporiasus illness, another group has been working diligently to provide a new level of safety for the average American.
Looking for needles in social haystacks
A group of social media developers in Chicago have been working on how to provide appropriate tracking methods for food borne illnesses. The researchers created the Foodbourne Chicago app, connecting consumers in Chicago with the local Department of Health.
The app constantly searches social media outlets like Twitter with keywords related to the issue. When a tweet is discovered that is related to a suspected food borne illness that originated in the Chicago watch area, developers will respond by advising individuals to use an online interface to complete a simple report. This information is forwarded to the City's 311 emergency service, a tracking number is issued and local health officials keep up with developments, including the victim's state of health.
All this information, once compiled, can bring to light developing food safety issues that may pose a serious public health risk. Authorities can then respond appropriately to prevent the problem from becoming more widespread, including monitoring potential risks at public restaurants and other food provider locations, and to take corrective action when trends trigger a credible and specific warning.
During early tests, some 70 incidents have been logged, though not all of them as a result of Twitter searches. But developers say they are encouraged by the response and the quality of the information gathered and believe after additional development and more tweaking, the app could become a first or early response system to add a layer of safety for consumers by quickly identifying and sharing information about a food born illness outbreak almost as fast as it develops.
Another benefit of the program will be providing information to local health officials as they attempt to identify restaurants and eateries that need special attention. The large number of restaurants, cafes, diners, delis and other food establishments in Chicago make regular inspections a difficult task, but information gathered by searching social media sites could help identify potential problems before they get out of control.
The idea to connect social media with a set of specific keywords for the purpose of information gathering and marketing isn't exactly new. A similar technology, known as nEmesis, was developed by researchers at the University of Rochester. That program also used Twitter data to identify potential food poisoning cases. University researchers have combed through nearly 4 million tweets and identified well over 400 possible food poison-related cases.
Both programs are in the early stages of testing, but food safety officials say they hope new technology and better awareness by the public, combined with timely inspections of eating establishments, markets, warehouses and trucks where food is stored, processed or shipped, will one day lead to better and more efficient ways to protect consumers from unexpected food borne illness.
Health officials point out that social media apps and programs can never replace clinical evaluation and emergency response as appropriate measures to protect public health. But they hope such programs can at least provide additional surveillance and another layer in the early warning system before outbreaks of food borne illness can get out of hand.\