Poor temperature control at Merle’s BBQ and Haven Middle School results in 30 ill with perfringens food poisoning

If you’re going to be holding food for parent/teacher interviews (or any event) you might want to make sure someone involved knows how to address the risks. Having equipment to hot-hold correctly and take temperatures is a start. Actually doing it is more important. According to the City of Evanston (Ill), at least 30 people were ill in mid-February with perfringens food poisoning following a parent teacher conference Haven Middle School. On-the-ball local health department folks investigated the outbreak by taking a look at practices at both the caterer, Merle’s BBQ and as well as at the school; in addition they sampled leftover foods:

“The outcome of the investigation revealed unsafe food handling and temperature storage at both Merle’s BBQ Restaurant and Haven Middle School and it is therefore unlikely that the exact cause of the outbreak will be determined,” said Evanston Health Director Evonda Thomas.

Based on positive laboratory tests from the food samples, the Evanston Health Department confirmed the bacteria came from the barbeque pulled chicken that was prepared and cooked at Merle’s BBQ Restaurant and delivered to Haven Middle School where it was then served “buffet style” between the hours of 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. No temperatures were taken at the time of delivery and the food was not kept heated or refrigerated during the time it was being served.

Like many outbreaks, it seems that lots of stuff went wrong. With Clostridium perfringens, spores are often still around after cooking. These spores can germinate and multiply to food poisoning levels if food is kept at improper temps (especially between 70F and 120F). Temp control at Merle’s, in transport and especially at the school all seem to be factors. Merle’s inspection results show that they’ve had temp issues in the past (along with handwashing and sanitation issues). If I was a business catering something like this I’d want to ensure that whomever I was giving the food to had something set up to handle it. And I’d ask whether they had a thermometer.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.