What You Need to Know About Outbreak Linked to Cilantro

PHOTO: Some Mexican cilantro has been banned because of conditions found in the fields where it is grown. PlayGetty Images
WATCH Outbreak Linked to Cilantro Leads to Import Ban

A surge of outbreaks related to a microscopic parasite has officials from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banning all cilantro imported from a Mexican state.

Cilantro farms in Pubela have been blamed for causing repeated cyclospora outbreaks in the U.S. in recent years, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The disease is caused by a parasite called Cyclospora cayetanensis and can cause intestinal illness with causes flu-like symptoms.

This year, the Texas Department of Health said there have already been 205 cases of the parasitic infection reported. Previous cases have also been reported in Wisconsin.

An investigation into multiple cilantro farms found dire conditions at some farms including "human feces and toilet paper found in growing fields and around facilities," and either "inadequately maintained and supplied toilet and hand washing facilities, " or "a complete lack of toilet and hand washing facilities," according to the FDA.

In some cases the water used by workers to wash their hands was found to be contaminated with the parasite.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said tracing cases of cyclospora can be difficult because it can appear similar to other diseases and is relatively rare.

"It’s an infection that is not easy to diagnose and is one that the average physician has very little knowledge of," said Schaffner. "Hospital laboratories will have some difficulty making these diagnosis."

He also said the case is worrying because cilantro is not usually cooked, which would kill the parasite.

"We use it frequently in salads and it’s uncooked and so there's no way you sterilize cilantro," said Schaffner.

Bill Marler, a Seattle-based food safety lawyer, said the number of cyclospora outbreaks in recent years is worrying.

"Banning the product is probably a bit past due given the numbers of outbreaks that have occurred, "said Marler. "The fact is that cyclospora is called an emerging pathogen. It’s relatively new bug making people sick in the U.S."

The disease is more common in tropical and subtropical regions but has caused outbreaks in exported food.

If your guacamole just isn't complete without a dash of cilantro, don't despair. Imports of the vegetable are still allowed from other Mexican states and the U.S. and Mexican authorities have joined forces to enhanced safety controls of cilantro farms in the area.

Cyclospora symptoms include:

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