( Fresh Express logo )

Fresh Express, whose salads were pulled from 3,000 McDonald’s restaurants after they were linked to a cyclospora outbreak, is convening a panel of food safety and industry experts to study the parasites and how they are spread.

In announcing the Fresh Express Blue-Ribbon panel, the salad company said too many questions remain in the McDonald’s cases and other cyclospora outbreaks in recent months.

“Recent cyclospora outbreaks, with limited evidence as to how they originated, have perplexed federal and state public health officials as well as food safety experts throughout the fresh produce industry, including Fresh Express,” John Olivo, Fresh Express president, said in a news release. “The purpose of the Fresh Express Blue-Ribbon Panel is to assemble an interdisciplinary group of independent scientific experts to better understand cyclospora’s mode of action and how the industry can better guard against future outbreaks.” 

While the company notes Central America has been the origin of vegetables linked to many cyclospora outbreaks in the past, this is the first time “a possibility exists that a potential source of contamination could be fresh produce grown and harvested in the US,” according to another release from Fresh Express.

According to the Food and Drug Administration’s most recent update on the cyclospora outbreak on Aug. 16, there are 476 lab-confirmed cases in the outbreak, and investigators continue to focus on distributors and growers of romaine and carrots in the salads.

Although a Fresh Express spokeswoman earlier reported the carrots were grown in the U.S., the company has not said where the romaine was grown.

Epidemiologist and infectious disease expert Micheal Osterholm, a regents professor and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, is heading the panel.

“The Cyclospora organism has contaminated certain fresh produce during spring and summer months, leaving public health officials unable to determine a confirmed origin despite their best efforts,” Osterholm said in the release. “Although the fresh produce industry works hard to ensure strong food safety standards, the yearly rounds of Cyclospora outbreaks now demand industry-focused attention.”

Osterholm said the panel will collaborate with the FDA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health agencies.

Panel members will be announced soon, according to the release, and the company expects a final report with recommendations to be released in the first quarter of 2019.

Questions the panel seeks to answer include:

  • What is the source of the cyclospora outbreaks?
  • How does the parasite transfer to fresh produce?
  • What steps should be taken by the produce industry?
  • Why haven’t investigators been able to trace how the parasite comes and goes?

 “The multiple recent Cyclospora outbreaks in the produce industry and their health consequences for consumers have gone too long without adequate explanation,” Olivo said in the release, “and it’s time to focus on finding some answers.”     

After the FDA alerted Fresh Express about finding cyclospora on unsold and expired salad at a McDonald’s, the Salinas, Calif., company also recalled wraps and salads distributed to Caito Foods LLC, Indianapolis.

 Federal health officials said there appears to be no link to a cyclospora outbreak linked to Fresh Del Monte vegetable trays. According to the most recent FDA update on that outbreak, 237 people became sick this spring.