DES MOINES, Ia. -- State and federal investigators should have been able to quickly pinpoint the source of a food poisoning outbreak that has sickened hundreds of people -- including more than 140 in Iowa -- since mid-June, a food-safety expert said Friday.
"This one is very solvable. This is one of the easy ones," said Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. "If this same number of cases had happened in Minnesota as happened in Iowa, this would have been solved weeks ago."
Osterholm was speaking about an outbreak of cyclospora, a parasite that can cause weeks of severe diarrhea and other illnesses. Iowa and federal officials have said the outbreak apparently was caused by tainted vegetables, though they haven't said what kind or where the produce might have originated. Several people have been hospitalized, mostly for dehydration.
The outbreak was first noticed in Iowa in June. Federal officials say they've now confirmed 321 cases in 15 states, although it's not clear if all the cases are related to the main outbreak, which is centered in Iowa and Nebraska.
Iowa's top public health expert said state and federal investigators have been working diligently to determine the source of the outbreak.
Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, medical director for the Iowa Department of Public Health, disagreed with Osterholm about how straightforward the issues are.
"Our food system is very complex. I would have loved to have solved this weeks ago, but this is not just your church-supper kind of investigation," she said, referring to food-poisoning cases in which all victims ate the same meal.
"I guess it's easy to be critical if you're not involved in the investigation," Quinlisk said.
Osterholm, who used to be Minnesota's state epidemiologist and is prominent nationally in food safety circles, said the parasite's relative rarity should make the investigation easier. In outbreaks of more common bugs, such as salmonella, investigators must spend a great deal of time sorting out which cases are linked to each other, he said.
With the cyclospora outbreak, he said, investigators could safely assume that the cases within a state or region probably have a common cause. Also, he said, the large number of confirmed cases in this outbreak should give investigators a great amount of data to sift through to find common food items patients consumed.
Maria-Belen Moran, a spokeswoman for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Friday that her agency is following scientific methods in its effort to track down the cause.
Asked about Osterholm's criticism, she replied, "We are not going to put ourselves in the position of 'He said, she said.'"
The CDC is partnering with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to coordinate the investigation.
Asked Friday about Osterholm's comments, FDA spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman replied in an email: "The food vehicle has not been identified, and for that reason we share his sense of urgency on solving this outbreak. This outbreak is a high priority for the FDA. The FDA, the CDC and state agencies are working together with the goal of controlling and stopping the outbreak as soon as possible and hopefully preventing future outbreaks."