Public health takes action after food poisoning incident at International Women’s Day event

Close to 90 people became ill at event in Orangeville in March

GUELPH – The local board of health heard the story of an International Women’s Day event that went wrong, and a collaboration between public health inspectors and the host that went right at a meeting on May 3.

Paul Medeiros, manager of environmental health with Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health, presented his report on an enteric outbreak that occurred on March 8 at the Best Western Plus Orangeville Inn & Suites.

There were 240 attendees at an International Women’s Day lunch and over the course of three days, 88 people came down with a gastrointestinal illness – vomiting, diarrhea, headaches and nausea.

The meal, prepared by an outside caterer, was served, speeches followed, and before the speeches were done, the first person had become ill.

Between noon and 1pm, three people became ill. Between 1 and 2pm, another 14 were sick and by 3pm, another 23 had become ill.

One person left the hall by ambulance, Medeiros said.

The caterer called the Guelph public health office when the first guest went down and was told to stop food service, he said.

Then Medeiros and the rest of the team went to the hotel to investigate.

Public health inspects restaurants, grocery stores and other eateries, but mass catering businesses present different kinds of risks, including  improper heating and cooling of food, high turnover and therefore often untrained staff, and the large number of guests eating at the same time.

The site and menu were assessed, food samples were collected for lab analysis, and questionnaires were sent to all the guests.

The online questionnaire is a new initiative of public health and it saved a lot of time and effort, Medeiros said. And it was effective.

Of the 264 recipients of the questionnaire, 213 responded, “and that’s really unheard of,” he said.

According to the survey, the chicken bowl was the likely culprit as most people who became sick had eaten that.

The survey also revealed the same dish made with tofu instead of chicken was the menu item least associated with illness.

“However, some individuals who ate the chicken bowl did not become ill, while some who ate the tofu bowl did become ill,” reads the report.

The chicken bowl was found to contain Bacillus cereus, a spore-forming bacteria that lives in soil and can easily find its way onto vegetables and fruits.

It also likes starchy foods like rice, potatoes, pasta and cheese products.

“Illness occurs when people consume food that has been temperature abused, allowing Bacillus cereus spores to germinate and multiply,” the report states.

“Given enough time, this pathogen will proliferate and produce a heat stable toxin that causes illness.”

Lab results indicated both the quinoa and sweet potato also had high levels of the bacterium Bacillus cereus.

The on-site inspection, where staff would have shown every step of the meal preparation, revealed the sweet potatoes had not been washed and after the quinoa was cooked, it was not properly cooled.

Bacteria on the surface of the sweet potatoes would have been introduced to the flesh of the vegetable during meal prep, increasing the likelihood of bacterial growth later in the food preparation process.

As well, the cooling, plating and serving process meant both food items spent too long at room temperature.

Medeiros said multiple times during his presentation that the facility and the caterer were helpful and wanted to cooperate with public health.

And he commended his own team for its thoroughness and quick action.

The role of the health inspector is to assess, protect and improve, he said. So, the next steps with the caterer will involve creating a safety management procedure.

This will help with training staff and ensure they are following best practices.

And there will be re-inspections.

“In our discussion with the caterer, he is very aware how he contributed to it,” Medeiros said. “Best practices matter.”

He said a regular email goes out to food-related businesses and this was the topic in the latest.

Public health inspectors work with organizers of large events that serve food to prevent outbreaks like this.

Many times, food is served by volunteers, who need to be properly trained as well.

As an example, Medeiros said they have been working with the International Plowing Match – in September in Amaranth Township – and have used this incident to beef up their message about following safe food handling practices.

“They are creating a small city on that farm field. They need to work with public health,” he said.

The health unit will design a resource for mass caterers outlining best practices related to things like chilling or portioning, and the safe way to serve at mass catering events.

“Mass catering requires specific skill sets, knowledge, processes, and equipment to adequately manage the risks and challenges associated with preparing and serving food to large groups of people,” the report states.

“This is a food safety risk area where public health inspectors will continue to evolve the prevention approach to maximize safe food handling practices.”