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Cyclospora outbreaks hit Florida, Toronto

WASHINGTON -- Florida Department of Health officials are investigating the source of a Cyclospora outbreak that has sickened more than 200 people across 31 counties.

"We continue investigating the source of illness," said Lindsay Hodges, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health. The state has detected an increased number of reported Cyclospora cases -- 236 confirmed cases across 31 counties -- in recent weeks.

At the same time, Toronto health officials are investigating an outbreak involving the same parasite that sickened children and adults on a school trip. A cluster of 40 cases of Cyclosporiasis has been detected among a group of 63 students and teachers who attended the school retreat.

Toronto officials suspect a pasta salad served to the children as the likely cause of the outbreak. Investigators are checking the pasta, tomatoes and fresh basil. A pasta dish containing fresh basil was suspected of causing a Cyclospora outbreak in the Washington, DC, area years ago.

FDA is monitoring reports of the two outbreaks and will get involved if a food source is identified, said a FDA spokesman.

At this point, the local health departments and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention are still trying to determine the source, he said. "It could be food, but that has not be confirmed at this point, he said.

Although Toronto authorities suspect fresh basil as the source for the school outbreak, Health Canada has yet to confirm it.

"We are very pleased Florida is being very cautious in its investigation, said Jennifer Tong of the United Fresh

Fruit & Vegetable Association, who credited state health officials with not jumping too quickly to blame one product or linking the two outbreaks until all the scientific evidence is in.

The sporadic nature of the cases across more than two dozen Florida counties means that health investigators will need to take time to find a common source. The large number of cases is "definitely something to take note off, Ms. Tong added.

For now, Ms. Tong recommended that the industry continue following food safety guidelines and good agricultural practices, and urged consumers to follow good handling practices with fresh fruits and vegetables.

In the past, Cyclospora-related illnesses have been linked to lettuce mixes, basil and Guatemalan raspberries. Federal health officials suspected tainted water used for pesticide application and poor worker hygiene may have contaminated the berries, which caused a large outbreak in the late 1990s. In 1999, an outbreak caused by the parasite was linked to fresh basil, and this time Mexican authorities found Cyclospora in the well water at the farm.