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Parasite outbreak over; fresh cilantro blamed in Texas

Health officials have finally determined that there was more than one outbreak of a nasty gut parasite that sickened more than 640 people in 25 states this summer, and that cyclospora infections were traced not only to bagged restaurant salad but also to fresh cilantro.

At least some of the 278 people who were sickened by the single-celled parasite in Texas fell ill after eating cilantro from an unidentified farm in Puebla, Mexico, according to an update posted Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 30 victims got sick after eating fresh cilantro from a single Mexican restaurant in Fort Bend County, Texas, the CDC said. Several others got sick after eating at two other unrelated Mexican restaurants in central Texas. Another four fell ill after consuming cilantro bought from a single local grocery store in north Texas.

Investigators identified more than 70 clusters of cyclospora illness in Texas, including many that involved only two or three people. About half of those who became ill in that state reported eating fresh cilantro in the two days to two weeks before they got sick.

That’s in addition to consumers in Iowa and Nebraska whose cyclospora infections were traced to bagged salad mix served at Red Lobster and Olive Garden restaurants and produced by Taylor Farms de Mexico, a U.S.-based distributor.

“The findings in the investigations suggest that there was more than one outbreak of cyclosporiasis during June-August 2013 in the United States,” CDC officials wrote.

Overall, 643 people in 25 states were sickened in the outbreak, including 45 who were hospitalized; no deaths were reported. Texas recorded the most cases, with 153 in Iowa and 86 in Nebraska. Other states recorded far fewer numbers.

Health officials had suspected all along that there may have been more than one simultaneous outbreak of cyclospora infections in the U.S. Though cyclospora is a rare parasite typically transmitted by fresh vegetables or contaminated water, previous outbreaks have occurred at the same time.

Taylor Farms, based in Salinas, Calif., briefly suspended salad production while officials investigated the outbreak of greens imported from Mexico. There’s no evidence that tainted salad mix from Taylor Farms or contaminated fresh cilantro from Puebla, Mexico, are still on the market, CDC officials said.

Cyclospora infections cause symptoms that include fatigue, loss of appetite, weight loss, bloating, gas, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, muscle aches and low-grade fever.

Consumers should wash their hands well when handling fresh produce and scrub it thoroughly, if possible, CDC officials caution.