Missouri caterer’s gravy linked to over 300 illnesses at a wedding reception

Reaching into the annals of foodborne illness history, there’s a quote in a paper by Rob Tauxe on traditional outbreak scenario:

[It] often follows a church supper, family picnic, wedding reception, or other social event. This scenario involves an acute and highly local outbreak, with a high inoculum dose and a high attack rate. The outbreak is typically immediately apparent to those in the local group, who promptly involve medical and public health authorities. The investigation identifies a food-handling error in a small kitchen that occurs shortly before consumption.Unknown-3

Congratulations unnamed Missouri caterer: you’re a traditional throwback.

According to the eMissourian, about 300 people got from Clostridium perfringens poisoning from gravy served at a wedding reception held at the Eagles Hall in Sullivan, Missouri.

C. perfringens spores often survive cooking but are not a problem until the food, like a big vat of gravy, is held at an improper temperature, or cooled improperly. The spores can germinate into cells which then can multiply to food poisoning levels if food is held between 41°F and 135°F for more than four hours.

Tests of food and stool samples came back positive for Clostridium perfringens, said Tony Buel, epidemiology specialist with the Franklin County Health Department.

About 100 people made reports to the county health department concerning the food poisoning. Some said they were aware of others who got sick, and it was estimated that more than 300 were affected.

About 750 people attended the April 5 wedding event at the Sullivan Eagles Hall, Buel said.

Hours after the wedding event people woke up experiencing symptoms of abdominal cramps and diarrhea, Buel said. Symptoms can last 24 hours.

Buel said the problem occurred when it took too long to cool the gravy down. That can cause bacteria growth and put toxins in food, he added.

Health officials inspected the catering facility, which, Buel said, was clean. The caterer handled another event the same day and no food poisoning happened.

The caterer was not penalized but was educated about the proper cooking process (maybe they should focus on cooling/hot holding? -ben), Buel said.

Buel said he did not want to release the name of the caterer because it could harm the business.

I guess the risk of hurting a business that doesn’t know how to handle foods for large crowds outweighs other event planners making an informed choice. If I was organizing a banquet or a wedding I’d want to know whether a caterer made 300 people sick before I hired them.

But I’m a bit of a weirdo.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is an associate 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.