What Officials Aren’t Telling the Public about the Source of the Stomach Bug That Sickened 400

(TheBlaze/AP) Nearly 400 people have been sickened by a stomach bug and health officials following the trail of where it might have started are pointing fingers at prepackaged salads. But they’re not naming any names yet, which has some up in arms.

The outbreak of the rare parasite cyclospora has been reported in at least 15 states. Although health officials in Nebraska and Iowa say they’ve traced cases there to prepackaged salad, it’s still too early to say the search for the outbreak’s origin is over.

Cyclospora stomach bug
In this image provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a photomicrograph of a fresh stool sample, which had been prepared using a 10% formalin solution, and stained with modified acid-fast stain, reveals the presence of four Cyclospora cayetanensis oocysts in the field of view. Iowa and Nebraska health officials said Tuesday, July 30, 2013, that a prepackaged salad mix is the source of a cyclospora outbreak that sickened more than 178 people in both states. Cyclospora is a rare parasite that causes a lengthy gastrointestinal illness. (Photo: AP/Centerd for Disease Control and Prevention)

Officials haven’t revealed the company that packaged the salad or where it was sold, explaining only that most if not all of it wasn’t grown locally.

The lack of information has fueled concern from consumers and others who argue companies should be held accountable when outbreaks happen and customers need the information about where outbreaks came from to make smart food choices.

prepackaged salad
The stomach bug outbreak has been linked by some health officials to prepackaged salads, but no names have been officially release as to the business that had distributed it. (Photo: Shutterstock.com)

“If you want the free market to work properly, then you need to let people have the information they need to make informed decisions,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in class-action food-safety lawsuits.

Mark Hutson, who owns a Save-Mart grocery store in Lincoln, Nebraska, said the lack of specific brand information threatened to hurt all providers, including the good actors.

“I think there was so little information as to what was causing the problem, that people just weren’t sure what to do,” he said. “Frankly, we would prefer to have the names out there.”

Food-safety and consumer advocates too believe the agencies shouldn’t withhold the information.

“It’s not clear what the policy is, and at the very least they owe it to us to explain why they come down this way,” said Sandra Eskin, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ food safety project. “I think many people wonder if this is all because of possible litigation.”

Although many are pushing for names linked to the outbreak to be released, one reason officials might be hesitant is because they still haven’t determined whether the cases of cyclospora in the different states are connected.

Iowa law allows public health officials to withhold the identities of any person or business affected by an outbreak. However, business names can be released to the public if the state epidemiologist or public health director determines that disclosing the information is needed to protect public safety.

As state and federal health authorities continue to track down the source of the parasite, there’s a new app being developed by researchers that could help protect consumers from such an outbreak in the first place. Not only that but the cradle-app combo for ordinary smartphones could also test for environmental toxins and conduct medical diagnostics.

The handheld biosensor was developed by researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. A series of lenses and filters in the cradle mirror those found in larger, more expensive laboratory devices. Together, the cradle and app transform a smartphone into a tool that can detect toxins and bacteria, spot water contamination and identify allergens in food.

Handheld Biosensor
A handheld biosensor was developed by researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, is shown June 21, 2013 in Urbana, Ill. Thanks to a cradle and app that turn your smartphone into a handheld biosensor, you may soon be able to run on-the-spot tests for food safety, environmental toxins, medical diagnostics and more. (Photo: AP/Michael Conroy)

Kenny Long, a graduate researcher at the university, says the team was able to make the smartphone even smarter with modifications to the cellphone camera.

Handheld Biosensor
Kenny Long, a graduate researcher studying engineering and medicine at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign works with a handheld biosensor based on an iPhone, is shown in this June 21, 2013 photo in Urbana, Ill. (Photo: AP/Michael Conroy)

Check out this video about the innovation:

This is not the first time smartphones have been modified for science. TheBlaze has reported about how a smartphone could be turned into a rudimentary microscope for testing out in the field.

This story has been updated to correct a typo.