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The gastrointestinal parasite first made headlines after contaminating raw veggies across the nation—and now salads at McDonald's.

Zee Krstic
July 16, 2018

It's been a few weeks since the FDA finally tracked down the source of the cataclysmic national E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce in Yuma, Arizona, but home cooks are on edge once more thanks to news that a new parasite has found its way onto vegetables and lettuce across the nation.

The parasite, called cyclospora, has sickened more than 225 people across the country over the last two months, according to the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cases of cyclosporiasis, the foodborne illness that occurs after one eats items contaminated with cyclospora, first saw an uptick in May when officials raced to recall trays of Del Monte pre-cut vegetables sold across the nation, leading to upwards of 200 cases of related illness.

Over the weekend, McDonald's announced that cyclospora had been found in their salads after more than 60 cases of cyclosporiasis were reported due to contaminated lettuce—more than 3,000 locations have now stopped selling salads, mostly in the Midwest, to avoid further illness.

How can cyclospora contaminate your food?

Richard Lautens—Toronto Star via Getty Images

According to the CDC, cyclospora is a variation of a protozoa, which is a small, single-celled organism. Most commonly, people come into contact with cyclospora when they eat food contaminated with human feces. This is different from E. coli and salmonella, which can spread when animal manure or other fecal matter is used in the production process.

It's unclear how cyclospora ended up in the recalled vegetables and McDonald's salads, but at some point, human fecal matter most likely caused the contamination.

Essential tips for keeping yourself safe from foodborne illnesses:

What kind of symptoms are associated with cyclosporiasis?

Thankfully, research into the parasite suggests that it isn't as deadly as other foodborne and water-borne pathogens.

You can expect symptoms to be somewhat similar to those with other illnesses categorized as food poisoning—chronic, severe diarrhea, as well as painful abdominal cramps, nausea, and a lasting feeling of fatigue. These symptoms and side effects might not even reveal themselves for up to five days after someone eats contaminated food.

Cyclosporiasis and its effects can last up to four weeks or more if left untreated, according to the CDC, whereas E. coli poisoning generally runs its course within five days. Treatment is simple—lots of fluids, and a specific blend of antibiotics that targets the parasite, according to the New York State Department of Health.

If you believe you've eaten either a Del Monte vegetable trays or one of the contaminated salads from McDonald's within the Midwest region, be sure to see your doctor immediately and to ask for a targeted cyclosporiasis diagnostic test—this is the quickest way to effectively begin the road to recovery.

How can you prevent cyclosporaisis at home?

The easiest way to protect yourself from contracting cyclosporiasis in your own home is to thoroughly wash your hands before and during cooking, which has previously proven to be a challenge for many American households.

But the CDC also recommends regularly cleaning prep stations and tools such as utensils and cutting boards, which can play host to a parasite like cyclospora for prolonged periods of time if not washed.

Another essential tip, especially in light of recent outbreaks, is to immediately refrigerate newly cut or peeled fruits and vegetables within two hours of prep.

While you might already stay away from unfiltered sources of water, the CDC also advises that home cooks do not use untreated well water—especially while abroad or traveling—in cooking or prep given that cyclospora can also thrive in these bodies of water.

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