Fresh basil source of Florida's cyclospora infection

TALLAHASSEE, Florida, June 6, 2005 (ENS): Contaminated fresh basil is considered to be the most likely cause of an outbreak of the gastrointestinal illness cyclospora, which sickened nearly 300 Floridians in March and April, state health officials said Friday.

Officials do not know where the basil originated or where it is being sold, said State Health Secretary Dr. John Agwunobi.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is initiating an investigation to determine the source of several clusters of cyclosporiasis associated with fresh basil served in Florida during mid-March through mid-April.

Known as a traceback, the investigation will work to locate the source of the contaminated produce.

The Florida Department of Health asked the FDA on Thursday to begin the traceback after results of an epidemiological investigation implicated fresh basil as the source of illness in Florida.

The Florida Department of Health has 293 laboratory-confirmed cases in 32 Florida counties during March and April.

"FDA is aggressively working with our federal and state partners to determine the source of the contaminated product and taking appropriate action to protect the public," said Dr. Robert Brackett, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Doc Kokol, a spokesman for the Florida Health Department, said, "With their experts, they'll be able to trace this tainted or contaminated fresh basil all the way back, hopefully to the fields, and they'll be able to tell us where it came from," said Kokol.

Cyclospora are microscopic, one-celled organisms that can contaminate fresh produce and burrow in the small intestine. The illness can be treated with antibiotics or could pass naturally within a period of a few days up to a month.

In order to help reduce the chances of infection from consuming fresh fruit and vegetables, federal and state officials reminded consumers to wash all fresh fruit and vegetables, including fresh herbs, under running tap water before eating them.

But Kokol said that washing may not prevent cyclospora infection. "As always, we're recommending to people that they wash their fruits and vegetables, and, while it may not eliminate cyclospora infection, it's just good common sense."

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