The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is determined to identify the source of several clusters of gastrointestinal illness known as cyclosporiasis that occurred in the state during mid-March through mid-April.
The investigation began last week after the Florida Department of Health's epidemiological investigation implicated fresh basil as the source of the illness. Most cases were reported on the west coast and central areas.
"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.
It is not known how this outbreak will effect Florida's burgeoning basil sector. There has been a dramatic increase in herb production in Florida in the last decade, from virtually none in 1991 to nearly 17 acres by 2001.
Herbs now rank third in greenhouse food crops, accounting for 18 percent of the state's greenhouse acreage, with the major herb being basil. Fresh-cut herbs grown in Florida account for over $1 million in sales, and the demand for fresh-cut herbs is expected in increase in part due to health-conscious consumers and increasing consumption of ethnic cuisine.
The FDA has been swift in its implementation of traceback since the identification of basil as the probable source of the outbreak. Since the passage of the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness Act, the agency has unprecedented authority over domestic and imported food products.
All food facilities are required to register with the FDA. In addition, the FDA requires all food facilities to maintain records to allow the agency to identify the immediate previous sources and the immediate subsequent recipients of food products.
The agency says that the speed at which these "one-step forward, one-stepback" records can be accessed in case of potential food contamination is critical in diminishing the impact on consumers.
If companies are unable to trace and isolate the source of a possible food contamination problem within 24 to 48 hours, the potential of serious damage increases exponentially. The FDA is therefore determined to push through with great rapidity its traceback operation in Florida.
Cyclosporiasis is caused by the ingestion of the Cyclospora parasite and results in the infection of the small intestine. It causes watery diarrhea with frequent, sometimes explosive, bowel movements.
Other symptoms include loss of appetite, substantial weight loss, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, muscle aches, low-grade fever and fatigue. Symptoms usually develop about a week after consuming the contaminated food. Cyclospora infection can be treated with appropriate antibiotic therapy. Individuals experiencing these symptoms after consuming basil products are advised to consult their physicians and notify their local health departments.