By: Candess Zona-Mendola

The San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) issued a statement today concerning the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District (Metro Health)’s release of their conclusions and report of their investigation. Metro Health, who investigated the slew of mystery illnesses after SAHA’s Golden Gala, completed its investigation on January 13, 2017. The position of the health agency is that the food served as the event is the source of the outbreak. Metro Health’s final report states:

“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.”

In light of Metro Health’s conclusions, SAHA issued its own public statement:

“We have received the findings of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District foodborne illness investigation of the event on 12/16/16. We are aware that six[ty] percent of the event attendees experienced illness following the event and Metro Health was notified by emergency officials on the night of the event and interviews were conducted with residents, volunteers, and special guests between Dec. 17 and Dec. 23. The report concludes that the illnesses were likely caused by a toxin associated with food served by the caterer at the event. The organism most probably responsible is Staphylococcus aureus. Staphylococcal food poisoning is a gastrointestinal illness caused by eating foods contaminated with toxins produced by the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus.”

Statistics and Investigations

Metro Health was unable to interview all 950 people who attended the event. The health agency contributes this to the fact that they did not have a complete guest list, and that guests did not return their calls. SAHA claimed in previous interviews with the media to have provided Metro Health with a list of the event’s attendees. Regardless, SAHA coordinated with Metro Health – which resulted in 110 interviews. Metro Health’s epidemiologists and investigators discovered that about 66 people interviewed became sick after the event. Metro Health confirmed that they believe there are many more unreported illnesses that could be linked to the event. Chef Don Mitchell, owner of Diehard Catering, purportedly also claimed to have fallen ill.

The interviews yielded a lot of common facts. For example, the most often reported symptoms included diarrhea, abdominal cramps, vomiting and nausea. The onset of symptoms in most interviewees was reported within hours of eating food at the Golden Gala. Most cases appeared to only last for one to two days. Based on the rapid onset of symptoms, short duration of the illness, and the reported symptoms, Metro Health epidemiologists were able to rule out other foodborne bacteria. However, the agency was unable to obtain any food from the event for testing.

Inspection of Diehard Catering

Metro Health did not only conduct interviews of the attendees. Metro Health statements reveal that they inspected the event’s location, the Joe Freeman Coliseum, as well as the main hub of the hired food vendor, Diehard Catering. Water tests from the event location came back negative for E. Coli and coliforms. During Diehard Catering’s inspection, there were more egregious findings. Metro Health purportedly conducted their inspections the day after the Golden Gala. The agency reported to the media that “[food] was not kept at the appropriate temperatures, there were no paper towels in the bathroom, and sanitizing procedures were not followed.”

Diehard Catering, however, has tried multiple times to point the finger of blame on anyone but themselves. Initially, Chef Don Mitchell, the owner of Diehard Catering, text messaged the media blaming the Joe Freeman Coliseum’s water for making people ill. Chef Mitchell claimed “residents might have gotten sick through something in the air or water at the Freeman Coliseum Expo Hall, where the gala was held.” Metro Health was quick to point out that they ruled out water and airborne sources as possible links to the dozens of illnesses.

When Metro Health made its refutes, Chef Mitchell then blamed the volunteers from the event. According to Mary Anne Martinez at KENS 5 news, Chef Mitchell would not commit to an interview with the station, but told her over the phone that he believed the bacteria came from the 28 volunteers SAHA partnered with for the event. It Is currently unknown who the volunteers were for the event.

Diehard Catering’s denials and scapegoating have not addressed any of the violations they received. Metro Health has confirmed that they found Diehard Catering held cooked chicken at a holding temperature of 122 degrees Fahrenheit. This is contrary to Texas regulations, which require 122 degrees Fahrenheit as the optimum cooking temperature., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the Food and Drug Administration recommend a more conservative temperature – 140 degrees Fahrenheit. According to Metro Health’s Spokeswoman Schliesinger, “A lot of it had to do with not keeping food at the right temperature.” Metro Health did provide citations to Diehard Catering for the violations, and according to Ms. Martinez’s report on January 13, 2017, the agency will continue to monitor the company. Metro Health has not mentioned when the next inspection of Diehard Catering will occur.

As of the time of this post, Diehard Catering and Chef Don Mitchell have not issued a statement concerning Metro Health’s report or offered any resolution to prevent outbreaks like this from happening in the future. They also have not addressed any allegations or questions surrounding the wrongful death lawsuit against them. The family of Guadalupe Jimenez cites in their complaint against Diehard Catering that their loved one became ill within a few hours after eating food at the Golden Gala. After emergency medical care and three days of “excruciating pain,” Ms. Jimenez passed away. The family is seeking $1 million for wrongful death.

Robins Cloud LLP is continuing to investigate claims of victims of the SAHA Golden Gala outbreak. If you or someone you love became ill after attending SAHA’s Golden Gala, please contact 855-969-5637 for additional information, questions, to assist in the investigation, or for a free consultation.