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Caterers dish up more cases of food poisoning

By JoNel Aleccia, MSNBC

July 30, 2010

More than a year after tainted taco meat sickened guests at a North Dakota wedding reception, the newlyweds are still touchy about the topic, says one party-goer who was sidelined for a week with food poisoning.

“They won’t talk about it,” said Doug Ness, 30, a Bismarck, N.D., chiropractor who suffered eight days of chills, fever and diarrhea. “They don’t want their wedding to be remembered that way.”

Unfortunately, the June 13, 2009 nuptials were part of a notorious trio of salmonella outbreaks caused by an unlicensed caterer who served tainted beef and noodle salad at two weddings and a family reunion.

The three incidents sickened 180 people, hospitalized 10 — and now serve as a warning about the dangers of foodborne illness from catered events.

“You eat it at your own risk. You don’t know who’s preparing it,” said Julie Wagendorf, a North Dakota Department of Health official who co-authored a report about tracking down the caterer, Aggie Jennings of Washburn, N.D.

As summer parties hit full stride, federal health officials are echoing that warning. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million people in the United States get sick each year with foodborne illness and 5,000 die. New CDC figures show that illnesses from reported outbreaks of food poisoning linked to catering outpace those from restaurants or home cooking.

36 illnesses per catering outbreak; 13 at restaurants

Between 1998 and 2008, there were 833 outbreaks of foodborne illness traced to caterers, incidents that sparked 29,738 illnesses, 345 hospitalizations and 4 deaths, according to Dana Cole, a CDC researcher.

That’s 83 outbreaks a year in an industry that logs 9,700 businesses and nearly 118,000 employees, according to IBISWorld, a California market analysis firm.

Proportionately, the outbreaks from catering are higher than the 22,600 illnesses from 1,546 reported home cooking outbreaks and the 101,907 illnesses from 7,921 outbreaks in restaurants and delis.

In fact, Cole said, there are 36 illnesses for every outbreak caused by catering compared with 13 illnesses per outbreak from restaurants or home-prepared meals.

“Partly that’s because at larger banquets and weddings the number of people served tend to be larger,” Cole said.

But it’s also partly because when food safety goes south at a large catered gathering, there’s a greater chance that many people who ate the same tainted food at the same time will get sick — and that someone will report it.

Just this month, for instance, health officials in Will County, Ill., began investigating an outbreak of norovirus at a popular banquet hall after guests at three weddings held the weekend of July 17 started calling with distressing symptoms.

Three weddings, 57 sick people

As many as 450 people attended the events at DiNolfo's Banquet Inn and Catering Service in Mokena, Ill. As of Thursday, 86 people had been interviewed and 57 reported nausea, diarrhea and vomiting following the galas. Four people were hospitalized, according to Vic Reato, a health department spokesman.

Among those sickened was Anita Fowler, 36, of Griffith, Ind., who filed a lawsuit this week against DiNolfo's after she spent a week flattened by what she believes was food poisoning. She's represented by Marler Clark, a Seattle food safety law firm, and the firm Newland, Newland and Newland of Arlington Heights, Ill.

"I couldn't even stand up, I was so weak and dehydrated," said Fowler, an executive administrator at the University of Chicago. "I missed a week of work. I wasn't able to take care of my children."

Health officials said norovirus — which has been confirmed in at least one patient — is likely the cause of the outbreak, but they're not sure of the source. The food at DiNolfo's has tested negative for norovirus so far, Reato said.

Chris DiNolfo, manager of the family owned business, said this is the first time in the company's 34-year history that they've faced any kind of outbreak. Health department records show that in recent inspections the site has posted 90s on a 100-point scale, Reato said.

"We do everything humanly possible to prevent it," said DiNolfo. "It is a very isolated incident."

The most common culprit in food poisoning outbreaks is indeed norovirus, said Dr. Tim Jones, the state epidemiologist in Tennessee and a national expert on foodborne illness.

Norovirus is a group of nasty bugs that spreads easily from person to person. Unlike salmonella or E. coli, other common sources of food poisoning, norovirus is spread by humans, not by animals.

More than half of the cases of food poisoning in catering came from humans, the new CDC figures showed. Because it can live on surfaces, norovirus is easily spread by touch as well as ingestion.

“All it takes is one kid in the back of the room or one person whose baby had diarrhea that day and they didn’t wash their hands quite right,” said Jones.

Salmonella a problem, too

In the North Dakota cases, the illnesses were caused by a rare strain of salmonella, another common source of food poisoning. Food from those parties was confirmed to be contaminated with Salmonella Montevideo, a type associated with chickens, which caterer Jennings raised on her farm.

At first, Ness didn't think food was to blame when he woke up feeling terrible after the wedding of his friends, whom he declined to identify. The dinner tasted great and he'd eaten many meals catered by Jennings at previous community gatherings, Ness said.

“I figured it was a long night, not enough sleep,” he said.

By mid-afternoon, he had fever, chills and diarrhea. Calls to other wedding-goers confirmed the worst: “It was something in the food,” Ness said.

Fortunately, his wife, Sara Weigel, 32, also a chiropractor, didn’t eat the taco meat. She was pregnant at the time with their son, Sam, now 11 months old, and food poisoning can be dangerous, even deadly, to expectant mothers and their babies.

There are steps hosts and guests alike can take to avoid food poisoning from catering, health experts say. First, choose a state-licensed caterer. In addition, more than 4,100 caterers in the United States and Canada are members of the National Association of Catering Executives, which offers extra certification, said Bonnie Fedchock, the organization’s director.

“We suggest that you ask a caterer for references, check those references, ask to see their kitchen, ask about food safety training for its employees and ask about food handling and or storage on location,” Fedchock said.

Guests should look over the food at a catered event and speak up if something’s not right.

“Make sure that ice that is storing perishable items on display is not melted, that foods do not smell or taste different than they should and that the conditions are generally clean,” Fedchock said.

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