By: Candess Zona-Mendola
Metro Health authorities have released further details about their investigation on January 6, 2017. Metro Health released a statement that they suspect that foodborne illness is to blame for the outbreak following the 19th Annual SAHA Golden Gala event. Although the report is not yet completed or the conclusions final, Metro Health has confirmed that they ruled out any water or airborne sources as the potential origin of contamination. The agency suspects that it was the food served at the event that caused illnesses in at least 66 people. The actual food product, however, has not been identified. Metro Health also has not released what bacteria it suspects could have caused the illnesses. The agency reports that their final report is set to release on Monday.
Metro Health’s information provided to the San Antonio Express leads to the possible conclusion that Diehard Catering may indeed be the cause of the outbreak. Metro Health noted that a secondary health inspection at Diehard Catering found evidence that the company was keeping cooked chicken at a holding temperature of 122 degrees Fahrenheit. This is contrary to food safety standards in Texas, which require cooked meats to be held at a temperature of 135 degrees Fahrenheit. The health inspection reports for Metro Health’s two recent inspections of Diehard Catering are not yet public.
This temperature difference is a huge concern. Metro Health was quick to note that foods left out at improper temperatures are at high risk of developing dangerous bacteria. Metro Health’s standard is even lower than that of federal agency FoodSafety.gov, which states that cooked food items should be held at a temperature of at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit to remain safe to eat.
The Golden Gala is an annual holiday event for the community’s elderly and disabled residents, hosted by SAHA, through its Education Investment Foundation. This year, the event was held at the Joe Freeman Coliseum in its Expo Hall. Back in 1997, during its inception, it was held at St. Paul’s Church parish hall. More recent Golden Galas had previously been held at the convention center. The event soon also became a celebration to highlight and recognize residents in the community who go above and beyond to make a difference. Most attendees arrived at the event via chartered buses.
During the event and in the hours that followed, many guests report to have suffered severe and sudden gastrointestinal symptoms. These symptoms include nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. A local news station, KSAT, reported that some guests were rushed to the emergency room via ambulance directly from the event itself. Some people report hospitalizations, and most report to have recovered within a few days.
SAHA and Metro Health commenced the investigation on or about December 20, 2016. On December 21, 2016, SAHA posted on its Facebook and Twitter feeds that if anyone knew someone, or themselves were, ill due to the Golden Gala event, that the Resident Assistance hotline was to be contacted. On the same day, SAHA posted that they are “actively monitoring the health of residents who attended the event on Dec. 16. We will provide updates as we get more info.” There have not been any further Facebook or Twitter updates as of the date of this post. SAHA came forward soon after, and stated,
“Upon being made aware of a potential food borne illness … prompt medical attention was provided by the San Antonio Fire Department EMS and medical personnel from Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council for a number of people affected with gastrointestinal symptoms.”
Days later, the catering contract was released to public. The contract identified Diehard Catering has retained food vendor for the event. The food was confirmed to be prepared off-site, as the event’s venue does not have a kitchen or the materials necessary to prepare food items. KSAT reported that the owner of Diehard Catering recently text messaged one of their reporters that he believed that the source of the outbreak was likely the water from the venue. Metro Health has purportedly ruled this out.
Victims Come Forward
Several victims have come forward and aided Metro Health in its investigation of the outbreak. At the time of this post, Metro Health has interviewed at least 110 of the 950 people who attended the Golden Gala. Metro Health has informed the media that SAHA did not give them a list of guests that attended the Golden Gala, contrary to SAHA’s statements claiming they did.
KENS5 news station interviewed San Antonio SAHA resident James Hamilton this week about his take on the event. Mr. Hamilton told the media outlet that he, and other victims, have the right to know what happened. Mr. Hamilton confirmed that he ate a “traditional holiday mix” of mashed potatoes, turkey, stuffing, and other foods. He recalled feeling sick on his ride home from the gala, when he began having abdominal cramps. Mr. Hamilton stated “Before I was able to get through [my] door, I had an episode … I actually had diarrhea, nausea, and I had to sleep in a fetal position for many hours during the night.” He finally decided to go to the hospital after several hours of symptoms. Mr. Hamilton said that his arrival was not a surprise to the Emergency Room. Mr. Hamilton stated:
“As soon as I arrived at the hospital, and I said ‘Golden Gala,’ I was immediately taken out back into the emergency room. The doctor informed me that there were SAHA residents and family of SAHA residents that were going to hospitals all over the city.”
At least one SAHA resident has purportedly died as a result of foodborne illness she suffered after attending SAHA’s Golden Gala. She died on December 19, 2016, three days after the event. The San Antonio Express released a copy of the wrongful death complaint filed on December 21, 2016 by the victim’s family against Diehard Catering. According to her obituary, Ms. Jimenez was only 64 years old.
Robins Cloud LLP and Unsafe Foods is continuing to investigate this event. We will continue to monitor the details and report those as they become available to us.