In September 2016, many people attending a catered lunch developed a gastrointestinal illness. Local health officials were called in to investigate and surveys were sent to all those attending to help determine how this happened. Here’s what was discovered:
- Approximately 50 people attended the lunch, 30 of whom (60 percent) became ill.
- They all reported diarrhea, abdominal pain, and headaches.
- The average interval from the time the lunch was served until the attendees said they felt sick was about five hours.
- Those who got sick had eaten a meat dish; 16 people had not eaten the meat dish and did not get ill.
- The caterers partially cooked the meat dish the day before the event and then put it in a refrigerator overnight.
- In the morning, the meat was sautéed for two hours.
- The four catering company workers were all tested to see if they had or have an illness; all tested negative for norovirus, Campylobacter, E. coli O157, Salmonella, and Shigella.
- Tests were taken of those who became ill, and it was determined the cause of the illness was C. perfringens.
“But only about 1,200 are reported annually. It’s because so few cases are reported that many in the restaurant and food service industries are unaware of the seriousness of this illness” Sharek says.
C. perfringens is often the cause of food poisoning in situations where large amounts of food are made at one time, such as this catered lunch.
So what is C. perfringens?
C. perfringens is a type of bacteria that forms spores at normal cooking temperatures. Outbreaks happen when food is not sufficiently heated or cooled. To prevent such incidents in the future, public health officials advised the caterer to follow these protocols:
- Ensure adequate refrigeration temperatures.
- Follow best practices for cooling foods, including using stainless steel rather than plastic containers.
- Avoid filling containers to depths exceeding two inches.
- Avoid stacking containers on top of each other in the refrigerator; this can negatively impact the temperature in the unit.
“What does ‘adequate’ refrigeration mean? The refrigerator temperature should be 40 degrees (F) or cooler,” he explains.
“And if the temperature of the food in the refrigerator was tested at 9 a.m. and found to be ‘adequate,’ does that mean the temperature inside the refrigerator is still ‘adequate’ at 2 p.m. or 7 p.m. even though it was not tested?
“The point is, to help prevent illnesses such as this, we must be much more specific and adopt testing protocols that help us ensure food is kept at proper temperatures, whether being stored in the refrigerator or when being cooked, and at all times.”
Sharek’s first suggestion is the expanded use of traditional thermometers and probes to monitor food temperatures. “While this is the traditional way of monitoring [food] temperatures, problems arise when workers get busy and fail to check the thermometers, or [when] food items are stored overnight after everyone has gone home.”
A more dependable option is a new technology that greatly reduces human error. Systems are now available that log food temperatures throughout the day. When temperatures exceed specific parameters, the systems send real-time alerts via text or email to food service workers.
“The food service industry is not necessarily considered a ‘high-tech’ industry, but they do adopt new technologies once they see the value of them,” says Sharek. “In this case, transferring to HACCP-compliant temperature-monitoring technologies can help ensure food safety, which everyone in the industry knows is certainly valuable.”
For more information on HACCP-compliant, automated temperature monitoring systems, contact a DayMark Safety Systems representative.