• Cyclospora: A Food Safety Hazard
  • FDA Takes Action
  • Keys to Produce Safety

Cyclospora: A Food Safety Hazard

Cyclosporiasis is an illness caused by the coccidian parasite Cyclospora cayetanensis, which is transmitted through ingestion of fecally contaminated food or water. Since 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported more than 6,000 domestically-acquired cases of cyclosporiasis in the United States, including many foodborne illnesses.

Foodborne illness outbreaks linked to Cyclospora cayetanensis have been attributed to a range of fresh produce vehicles. In 2020, the CDC confirmed 701 cases of cyclosporiasis were associated with a multistate outbreak linked to a bagged salad mix. The FDA investigation of this outbreak suggested that contaminated irrigation water near a farm was the probable source of the pathogen.

In recent years, the CDC has investigated additional multistate foodborne outbreaks of cyclosporiasis involving fresh produce, including: fresh basil (2019), a salad mix served by a national restaurant chain (2019), and vegetable trays (2018).

FDA Takes Action

In July, the FDA unveiled a new strategy for addressing Cyclospora in fresh produce, which was modeled after the 2020 Leafy Greens STEC Action Plan. The FDA’s Cyclospora action plan outlines a strategy based on three priority areas:

1. Prevention: Prevention is a top priority of the FDA action plan as the FDA intends to identify control measures for C. cayetanensis. Chemical treatments typically used on farms and fresh produce to control bacterial pathogens are not effective against the parasite. For this reason, the agency intends to collaborate with the industry to evaluate the use of control measures against Cyclospora, including tools currently employed for controlling other parasites.

Currently, the FDA employs a real-time PCR method for the detection of Cyclospora cayetanensis in fresh produce. The development of rapid test kits to detect C. cayetanensis in food is a priority of the FDA action plan. According to the FDA, “developing specific rapid test kits for C. cayetanensis can allow industry to expand testing and conduct root cause analyses to assess potential sources and routes of contamination if C. cayetanensis is detected in samples.”

2. Response: Expanding the laboratory capacity of FDA, states, foreign governments, and academia would bolster sampling and testing efforts for C. cayetanensis in fresh produce. The action plan confirms the FDA will continue to conduct surveillance sampling of domestic and imported produce to evaluate Cyclospora contamination trends, and to support federal investigations of outbreaks associated with produce vehicles.

3. Research: Since Cyclospora is a relatively new food safety concern, the third section of the FDA action plan emphasizes the need for research to “fill the knowledge gaps.” Toward this goal, the FDA has directed the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods (NACMCF) to prepare a report on Cyclospora, which will address issues such as routes of contamination, prevalence and control measures. The use of genotyping methods to link clinical cases of cyclosporiasis to food and/or environmental samples is another research priority of the action plan. Moreover, the FDA intends to evaluate the prevalence of Cyclospora in agricultural water in growing regions, and the role of wastewater in contributing to C. cayetanensis contamination of fresh produce.

Keys to Produce Safety

From farm to fork, Cyclospora has become a food safety priority for the North American fresh produce industry. United Fresh has advised produce growers and handlers to focus on the prevention of contamination. According to the FDA, controlling the sources of Cyclospora contamination in the field, packinghouses, and from farmworkers is essential for preventing foodborne illnesses.

Under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the final rule, Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption established science-based minimum standards to ensure the safe growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of raw agricultural commodities. The FDA advises farms to control Cyclospora by training workers on proper handwashing procedures, ensuring toilets and handwashing stations are maintained, and preventing ill workers from handling fresh produce or food contact surfaces.

Traceability is essential for monitoring the foodborne illness risk of Cyclospora associated with domestic and imported fresh produce. Since the release of the FDA’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety last year, food companies have been advised to adopt a technological solution for increasing transparency and end-to-end traceability throughout the food system. While some food companies have already implemented a digital traceability system, the FDA’s strategy is dependent upon a commitment from all segments of the food industry to adopt a technological approach to food safety and end-to-end traceability.

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