A new foodborne illness outbreak hit Florida and the Tampa Bay area this summer, but the health department never warned the public, a Dirty Dining investigation found.
The major outbreak of cyclosporiasis began in the summer months and made its way into the U.S. on fresh basil imported by a Mexican distribution company, according to the CDC.
Hundreds of people across 11 states have been sickened from the parasitic infection – despite the company recalling the basil on July 24.
Dr. Beata Casanas, an infectious disease doctor for Tampa General Hospital and USF Health, says she’s seen a huge spike in cases this year.
Normally, Florida has about 75 cases per year. But so far in 2019, there have been more than 530 cases recorded, including dozens of cases locally with Hillsborough and Pinellas counties seeing the highest numbers in the Tampa Bay area.
According to state inspection reports, Oxford Exchange in Tampa had two confirmed cases in June and August, while another case in June was discovered at Gianni’s NY Pizza in St. Petersburg.
Cyclosporiasis is an intestinal illness caused by the microscopic parasite Cyclospora cayetanensis, according to the CDC. Symptoms can include watery diarrhea, abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue and nausea.
“It may last from days to weeks – sometimes even months,” said Casanas.
Holly Green-Pellegrini, who got sick from the parasite after eating at a Nordstrom Bazille in Jacksonville on June 17, said she’s still suffering.
“The pain at night is terrible. Sometimes I don’t eat at all because I can’t,” said Green-Pellegrini.
Green-Pellegrini said she was so sick and contagious that doctors forbid her from visiting her dying sister in a medical facility before she died.
And Green-Pellegrini wasn’t the only one.
According to the state, more than two dozen customers who ate at that same Nordstrom restaurant also fell ill. The state health department wrote it “believes that each patron consumed basil that was likely already contaminated with the parasite prior to its delivery to the establishment.”
In Tampa, three people tested positive for the parasite after eating at the Nordstrom Bazille at International Plaza, according to the health department records.
“When you fail to take the proper precautions to handle your food, you’re playing Russian roulette with your patrons and the health of your patrons,” said Ron Simon, a national food safety attorney.
Simon has filed several lawsuits against restaurants in Florida over the recent outbreak, including legal action in Green-Pellegrini’s case.
Simon warns about the risks of imported produce.
“In order to get cyclosporiasis you have to consume food or drink that has human feces in it,” said Simon. “That’s gross and it’s unfortunate, but it’s very, very dangerous.”
There is no vaccine, so experts recommend patients would think they’ve been infected with the parasite should get tested and treated right away.
No one at Nordstrom Bazille, Oxford Exchange and Gianni’s wanted to speak on-camera about these cases, but the restaurants told ABC Action News they take these issues seriously and cooperated with the health department. Gianni’s also said it stopped buying from its basil supplier.
Statement from Nordstrom corporate communications:
“The wellbeing and safety of our customers and employees is our top priority. We take these issues seriously and work hard to adhere to all health department safety and sanitation requirements. We have worked directly with the health department.”
Statement from Oxford Exchange:
“We were inspected by the health department and all of our product was tested and passed with no cyclosporiasis found. We have not been told by the state that any of our purveyors are associated with their investigation.”
Statement from Gianni's NY Pizza:
“The case of Cyclosporiasis that took place on June 24th was not brought to our attention until around August 18th when the Health Dept performed an inspection. Upon being informed of the possibility of basil being contaminated we immediately stopped using basil on any of our food products. After doing further research it was confirmed that the FDA’s traceback investigation confirmed that the fresh basil that was making some consumers ill was exported to the United States by Siga Logistics de RL de CV located in Morelos, Mexico. There were several other states included with cases: CT, FL, GA, IA, MA, MN, NY, OH, RI, SC, WI. Exposures occurred at restaurants in five states: FL, MN, NY, OH, WI.
Once this information came to light, we changed vendors immediately from where we were purchasing our basil, to a US-based farm from a different vendor. We have not had any issues before or after this particular case.
As a foodservice operator with over 60 years of experience, we practice safe food handling and preparation measures at all times thoroughly washing and sanitizing all food service contact areas in addition to frequent hand washing and sanitation.
We take food handling and preparation extremely serious and understand that not only our lively hood depends on this but the concern for all of the wonderful customers we serve daily who put their trust in us to serve them a high quality delicious and safe meal.”