By: Candess Zona-Mendola
Metro Health released its report today concerning the conclusion of their investigation on the San Antonio Housing Authorities’ (SAHA’s) Golden Gala event. The report comes about a month after the event itself, which was held on December 16, 2016. Metro Health believes that they have determined the bacteria that was the cause of so many gastrointestinal illnesses from the event. Metro Health’s report notes:
“Based on the public health investigation, the organism most likely responsible is Staphylococcus aureus. The bacterium, Staphylococcus aureus, produces toxins, which causes gastrointestinal illness by eating contaminated foods. Metro Health makes this conclusion based on the rapid onset of symptoms and the short duration of the illnesses.”
Health Department Inspections
Last week, Metro Health released details to the public that they had ruled our water and airborne sources as potential causes of the outbreak. Their investigations seemed to focus mainly on foodborne sources. During a brief interview with the San Antonio Express, the owner of Diehard Catering, Don Mitchell, said “residents might have gotten sick through something in the air or water at the Freeman Coliseum Expo Hall, where the gala was held.” When the news station interviewed Metro Health about Mr. Mitchell’s claims, Metro Health Spokeswoman Carol Schliesinger noted:
“It is not the water. We did test the water ourselves in our lab. We haven’t had anything definitive. We suspect it may be a toxin. When you leave food out at a certain temperature, bacteria can grow toxins.”
Metro Health’s report released today confirmed that the event location’s water tested negative for coliforms and E. Coli. The agency confirmed that they tested the water from several different areas and sources at the event location.
It was discovered during a follow-up health department inspection that the catering company left its already cooked chicken at a holding temperature of 122 degrees Fahrenheit. Texas regulations require cooked foods to be held to at least 135 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. “A lot of it had to do with not keeping food at the right temperature,” according to Spokeswoman Schliesinger. Upon review of the health inspection, Metro Health Inspector Kathy Prenzier mentioned in her report that Diehard Catering also failed to (1) use proper methods to cool food items, (2) provide employees with paper towels to dry hands after washing, and (3) sanitize food preparation equipment.
Investigations into an outbreak of this kind are sometimes difficult. Spokeswoman Schliesinger further noted that the lack of food samples from the event to test made the investigations challenging. Metro Health was only able to interview a small amount of people pertaining to the outbreak, as, contrary to SAHA’s representations, they were not provided with a full list of attendees. According to SAHA’s representative Rosario Neaves, about 950 people attended the event.
Metro Health mentioned in its report that SAHA worked with them to find as many guests as they could from the event. Metro Health was only able to interview 110 guests, finding that 60 percent of them became ill within hours to a day after eating food at the Golden Gala. Therefore, Metro Health speculates that the numbers of people sickened by the event are probably higher than the confirmed illnesses. On January 6, 2017, Diehard Catering owner Don Mitchell reported to the San Antonio Express that he also became ill.
What is Staphylococcus aureus?
Staphylococcus aureus, or staph as it is sometimes called, is a foodborne bacterium that produces toxins in the human body. A person typically has staph on their skin, but in post healthy adults, it does not cause illness. A person can become infected with staph through the contamination of food items, usually through the lack of proper handwashing. According to Foodsafety.gov, “Staphylococcus can cause food poisoning when a food handler contaminates food and then the food is not properly refrigerated.” Infection is also potentially caught through unpasteurized milk and milk products.
The concern with staph is that it can be found on a variety of foods that people may handle, but not necessarily cook. These foods may not appear to be contaminated. They usually will not smell, taste, or look compromised in any way. For example, baked goods, sliced meats, and sandwiches are common culprits. With proper cooking temperatures, staph is usually killed. This is why cooking foods, especially meats, to their optimum cooking temperature is important.
The signs and symptoms of a staph infection are fairly quick to show – usually developing anywhere from thirty minutes to six hours. Like in the SAHA Golden Gala outbreak, most people have symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps. People in the high risk group, who are elderly, young, or have compromised immune systems, may have more severe symptoms. The severity of these symptoms could lead to dehydration and potential kidney problems. Severe symptoms are rare, but concerning.
This is why urgent medical attention is critical for someone in the high risk group. Staph is typically diagnosed using the classic stool test. Treatment methods are usually supportive in nature, especially to ensure the patient does not become dehydrated.
Prevention is Key
As with most foodborne illnesses, staph infections are preventable. By using some simple food safety practices, you can ensure that you keep you and your family healthy. These include:
• Washing your hands. You only need 20 seconds, some soap, and warm running water.
• Washing and cleaning all food preparation areas, equipment, and utensils. This will help prevent cross-contamination.
• Cook foods to their optimum cooking temperature to kill harmful bacteria.
• When cooked foods are not being served right away, they should be held at a temperature of at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit to avoid the growth of dangerous bacteria.
• When food is to be stored, it should be placed in a refrigerator at a temperature of at least 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below.
• Refrain from preparing food items if you are sick or think you may be sick.
• Using gloves while preparing food is also a good practice.
Robins Cloud LLP is continuing to investigate claims of victims of the SAHA Golden Gala outbreak.