By: Candess Zona-Mendola

There have been a large number of news reports recently of people suffering foodborne illness from holiday parties. Several people have fallen ill and died after a Thanksgiving meal at a church function. Over 50 people are purported ill after a charity gala in San Antonio. And now, the State of New Mexico is investigating on of its own. In an interesting addition to this unfortunate trend, the health department employees of the New Mexico Department of Health (NMDH) found themselves without immunity.

On or about December 20, 2016, the NMDH announced to the media that dozens of its employees fell ill with foodborne illness after its annual holiday party. The catered event was held at the health department’s headquarters, Harold Runnels Building in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on December 14, 2016. NMDH did not released information as to the company hired to cater the event. It is known that the event was catered by a local Santa Fe company. The only details known about the food at the event are that deli sandwiches were involved.

The Announcement

On or about December 20, 2016, NMDH Secretary Lynn Gallagher announced via electronic mail to the health department’s employees that there had been “reports of a number of employees becoming ill with mild gastrointestinal illness.” The electronic correspondence further mentioned that the health department was in the process of conducting an investigation. The in-house investigation is underway by the very same epidemiologists that conduct them for the New Mexican general public. Secretary Gallagher concluded the email with the promise that “We [NMDH] will work to take appropriate steps to address food handling procedures with the caterer and prevent such problems in the future.”

At this time, state epidemiologists have been unable to determine which food item or product is the source of the illness. There is suspicion of deli meat cross-contamination occurring during the event itself, but foul play has not been mentioned. Secretary Gallagher has informed the public that laboratory results are pending, and two types of bacteria are suspected. The suspected bacteria have been identified based on the latency and severity of symptoms reported by those who have become ill. Secretary Gallagher identified the suspected bacteria as bacillus cereus or clostridium perfingens. NMDH Deputy State Epidemiologist Joan Baumach, whom was among those who suffered food poisoning after the event, believes clostridium perfringens is the culprit. Dr. Baumach commented that she suffered abdominal cramps and a little bit of diarrhea – typical symptoms of clostridium perfringens. She was quick to note that this bacterium is really common, so she was not surprised that so many people were sick. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control report that there are at least 1 million reported cases of clostridium perfringens each year.

NMDH Director of Communications Paul Rhien stated that more than 200 employees were in attendance at the event. Thus far, 71 of these employees reported food poisoning symptoms that developed within one to two days of the event. NMDH representatives have not identified if more people are suspected or have reported illness.

The Caterer

Although the details surrounding the source of contamination are not yet known, the caterer for the event has been released. During the investigation of the outbreak, NMDH state epidemiologists discovered that the hired food service company, Kick Ass Sandwich Shop, did not have the proper approved permits to cater the event. The NMDH issued a health violation, which identified the company publically as linked to the event.

The Kick Ass Sandwich Shop is a relatively new Santa Fe, New Mexico company. Media outlets have reported that the company initially opened as the Bad Ass Sandwich Company earlier this year, but was forced to change its name following a trademark infringement lawsuit from a Utah-based company. The company advertises as the perfect place for locals, specializing in “Toasted Sandwiches, all beef Hot Dogs meal preps & Salads, several protein shakes & smoothies.” The NMDH and the New Mexico Environment Department are purportedly working with the company to find out the source of contamination and to prevent any future outbreaks.

What About the Suspected Bacteria?

The two suspected bacteria are relatively common in the food poisoning arena. The least likely culprit, Bacillus cereus, is found in foods that have been left in room temperature too long. reports that food poisoning from this bacterium has a rapid onset, usually within 30 minutes to 6 hours. Symptoms are fairly mild, like vomiting, abdominal cramps, and minor diarrhea, and usually are subsided within 24 hours. This bacterium is considered the least likely culprit as the health department representatives were aware of food safety practices during the event. Bacillus cereus is typically found in food that has been left to sit for more than two hours.

Clostridium perfringens, however, fits the characteristics of the outbreak a little better. Commonly found in a variety of foods, especially meat products, outbreaks related to these bacteria occur when a large amount of food is prepared and held at a warm temperature prior to serving. Alike to Bacillus cereus, symptoms of this illness are rapid – diarrhea and abdominal cramps within 6 to 24 hours. Vomiting and fever is not typically seen in this type of food poisoning. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms related to Clostridium perfringens happen suddenly, but ease within 24 hours. Some people may continue to have minor symptoms for an ongoing 1-2 weeks.

If you or someone you love attended the NMDH holiday event, and suspect that you were ill afterward, it is advised to report your illness to NMDH.

Prevention is Key
Food poisoning is preventable. By simply ensuring food was cooked to a proper temperature and held at a safe temperature for the duration of the event could most likely have prevented this outbreak. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend the following methods of prevention:

“To prevent the growth of C. perfringens spores that might be in food after cooking beef, poultry, gravies, and other foods commonly associated with C. perfringens infections should be cooked thoroughly to recommended temperatures, and then kept at a temperature that is either warmer than 140°F (60°C) or cooler than 41°F (5°C); these temperatures prevent the growth of C. perfringens spores that might have survived the initial cooking process. Meat dishes should be served hot right after cooking.

Leftover foods should be refrigerated at 40°F or below as soon as possible and within two hours of preparation. It is okay to put hot foods directly into the refrigerator. Large pots of food like soup or stew or large cuts of meats like roasts or whole poultry should be divided into small quantities for refrigeration. Foods should be covered. Leftovers should be reheated to at least 165°F (74°C) before serving.”

It is a good idea to remember that, most of the time, food that looks, smells, and tastes fine to eat may still have dangerous bacteria. To help keep yourself healthy and safe at a holiday party, make sure to steer clear of any foods that have been sitting at room temperature for too long or that are lukewarm to the touch. By storing foods within 2 hours of preparation, foodborne illness can be prevented.

We at Unsafe Foods wish you a happy and healthy remainder of your holiday season and a safe new year!