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CDC identifies bacteria that killed 3 who ate church meal

A Thanksgiving Day meal served by a church group in Antioch, CA, that killed three people was evidently contaminated with the bacteria Clostridium perfringens.

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“Clostridium perfringens is one of the most common foodborne illnesses in the U.S. It can be found in the human intestine without hurting us, but eating food containing large amounts of this bacteria can cause illness and in some cases death,” Louise McNitt, deputy health officer for Contra Costa Health Services, said in a news release late Tuesday.

It remains unknown exactly what food, or foods, served by members of the Golden Hills Community Church on Thanksgiving Day was contaminated. Several hundred people ate the food, served at an American Legion auditorium in Antioch.

“But after extensive interviews we found most of the ill people ate turkey and mashed potatoes and they all ate around the same time. Some dishes served at the event, including cooked turkey, were brought to the site after they were prepared in private homes,” Marilyn Underwood, county environmental health director, said in the release.

The local officials had said it might take months for laboratory confirmation of the specific pathogen responsible for the more than two dozen illnesses and three deaths. However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notified the county it had confirmed the illnesses were caused by Clostridium perfringens.

Many of the estimated 800 people who ate the church meal on Nov. 24 were elderly or infirmed residents of assisted living centers, including the three people who died. They were 43-year-old Christopher Cappetti, 59-year-old Chooi Keng Cheah, and 69-year-old Jane Evans, according to the Associated Press.

All of the reported illnesses occurred within 24 hours of consuming food at the church dinner, which is in line with the CDC’s published information on Clostridium perfringens.

The bacteria is commonly found in meat and poultry, but thorough cooking kills it. However, extremely small amounts of it can survive on utensils and surfaces and cross contaminate cooked foods. It multiplies very quickly when foods are left at room temperature.

Danger zone temperature graphic“During cooling and holding of food at temperatures from 54 F to140 F, the spores germinate and then the bacteria grow. … If the food is served without reheating to kill the bacteria, live bacteria may be eaten. The bacteria produce a toxin inside the intestine that causes illness,” according to the CDC.

“Foods that have dangerous bacteria in them may not taste, smell, or look different. Any food that has been left out too long may be dangerous to eat, even if it looks okay.”

To prevent the growth of Clostridium perfringens spores that might be in food after cooking beef, poultry, gravies, and other foods commonly associated with Clostridium perfringens infections should be kept at a temperature that is either warmer than 140 F or cooler than 41 F.

Leftover foods should be refrigerated at 40 F or below as soon as possible and within two hours of preparation. Foods should be covered. Leftovers should be reheated to at least 165 F before serving.

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