61 sickened: Report released in Kansas Meals on Wheels Norovirus outbreak

The most likely source of a norovirus infection in Jan. in Kansas that sickened at least 61 was the Meals on Wheels kitchen in Chanute, but enough data to pinpoint a more specific source could not be obtained.

meals.on.wheelsThe outbreak was first reported Jan. 7 after several people reported gastrointestinal distress after eating Meals on Wheels in Neosho, Allen or Woodson counties.

The investigation was a joint effort between the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Kansas Department of Agriculture and the Neosho, Allen and Woodson County health departments.

Those affected by the outbreak received meals from Meals on Wheels centers from distribution centers in Chanute, Erie, Humboldt, Iola, Moran, Neosho Falls, St. Paul, Toronto, Thayer and Yates Center, all of which receive their food from the central kitchen in Chanute.

Individual county health departments carried out interviews with affected individuals in their counties while KDHE interviewed staff and volunteers at Meals on Wheels.

According to the report, 488 clients were served by Meals on Wheels Jan. 5 and 6. Attempts were made to contact all served. A total of 159 were successfully interviewed, with 123 meeting the criteria for analysis. Of those, 61 reported illness.

Norovirus outbreak, including a death, linked to Kansas Meals on Wheels; handwashing issues cited

When I was a kid I used to visit my grandparents in Campbellford,Ontario (that’s in Canada) a bunch. My grandparents lived most of their lives in Toronto (that’s also in Canada) but had retired to this town about 2hrs outside of the city.

My grandparents were into community stuff: volunteering for the hospital auxiliary, organizing charity curling bonspiels and golf tournaments and driving some of their more elderly neighbors to doctor’s appointments.Unknown-1

And my grandfather drove around some food for Meals on Wheels.

I remember being about 8 and going on his route one spring break morning. He grabbed some already-food-filled covered trays and then took a bunch of apples and oranges in bulk. This was before I knew anything about food safety; I didn’t really notice anything about bare hand contact or handwashing.

According to chanute.com, a norovirus outbreak, tragically including a death, has been linked to a Meals on Wheels service in Kansas.

It has been confirmed by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment that the source of the norovirus outbreak in the Neosho County area last week was Meals on Wheels in southeast Kansas.

KDHE Health Programs Public Information Officer Aimee Rosenow said the numbers of confirmed ill have not changed since Friday when there were 29 confirmed ill. 

Rosenow said epidemiology staff are still working on the case to narrow down the source of infection.

A Jan. 8 food safety inspection of the Chanute Senior Services of SEK facility found problems with hand washing and properly arranging food in coolers to avoid cross-contamination. Samples were also taken of all food from the batch delivered Jan. 6.

KDHE Public Health Public Information Officer Aimee Rosenow said KDHE does not have an autopsy report confirming the cause of death as Norovirus infection and cannot release the name of the deceased. 

“We do know that the patient was ill and has been served by this program,” she said.

Over the past year UNC-Chapel Hill food policy student (and frequent barfblog contributor) Ashley Chaifetz has been researching food handling practices and infrastructure at food pantries in North Carolina (as part of a USDA CAP grant on STECs). Volunteers provide a particular challenge for food safety as they may be transient and have varying food safety values. 




Is street meat safe to eat?

During my undergraduate days in Canada I tended to grab a bite after hitting the town. Though I rarely do it now (BK burgers just aren’t made with the same care at 3am), I do recall scarfing down hotdogs from street vendors during the wee hours of the morning.

But is street meat, or any other food prepared on wheels, safe, asks the Hudson Reporter.

[S]hould customers trust food that’s stored and cooked in what’s essentially an old truck? Is the food kept in a cold – really cold – refrigerator? Is the food cooked at a temperature that will kill any bacteria in the meat? And how do the cooks wash their hands and utensils?

Alex Fernandez, a California native who sells south-western cuisine from a food truck in Jersey City, said,

“You wouldn’t believe the laws we have to follow. It’s more [regulated] than you think. It’s just like a restaurant. No different. We’re just on the sidewalk.”

Frank Sasso, health officer for Hoboken, where there are 33 food cart and food truck licenses, said,

“Both food trucks and food carts, which are generally hot dog stands, must have a stent thermometer to check the temperature of cooked foods…”

Vendors must also have a way to clean their hands. Food carts are required to have some type of hand sanitizer, but are not required to have water available for hand washing. Food trucks, as opposed to carts, are required to have a source of water for hand washing, although the water isn’t required to be hot. Carts must also have hand sanitizer in addition to the water.

Sasso noted that most food poisoning – from restaurants, supermarkets, home kitchens, and elsewhere – generally stems from improper storage or cooking temperatures.

Carts or trucks are annually inspected by the local health department.