Late last week, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Division of Public Health (NCDPH) released a final report detailing its investigation into a Salmonella outbreak linked to a fundraising barbeque held at Sandy Plains Baptist Church in Shelby, NC, on Sept. 7, 2013. The report states that 104 people between the ages of 3 and 85 fell ill with diarrhea within a week of having consumed food or beverages at the church barbeque. Salmonella cases were reported among residents of the following NC counties: Rutherford (52), Cleveland (45), McDowell (2), Mecklenburg (2) and Gaston County, and one case from Spartanburg County, SC. In a press release issued by the Cleveland County Health Department, it was noted that, while the consumption of food or beverages during the church barbeque on Sept. 7, 2013, caused illness among 104 reported cases, no particular food or beverage source could be identified as the source of the Salmonella outbreak. Particular food exposures, hygiene practices or food sources were not determined to have caused the outbreak. According to the Cleveland County Health Department, stool specimens were requested of all case-patients. Stool culture, Salmonella serotyping and Pulsed Field Gel Electrophoresis (PFGE) analysis revealed a PFGE pattern of the Salmonella outbreak strains that had only been seen on two other occasions outside of North Carolina. Officials said this indicated that the source of the outbreak was something at the church barbeque and not a contaminated product from a different source. The health department press release points out that the Sandy Plains Baptist Church and the barbecue event were exempt from environmental health inspection prior to the event and issued the following recommendations:

Given the fact that events such as church barbecues may serve large numbers of persons and utilize relatively untrained persons, consideration should be given to requiring some formal oversight to ensure food safety. The following is a list of recommendations that fundraising organizations may implement immediately to help ensure a safe food service event:

  • Organizations that are exempt from environmental health inspections, according to NCGS 130A-250, should partner with local environmental health specialists to receive recommendations and guidance regarding safe food handling practices for their specific events.
  • Children should not participate in food handling, especially without gloves. If children are involved in food handling, they should be under adult supervision at all times to ensure safe food handling practices are being implemented.
  • Plan a safe food menu, bearing in mind special handling and cooking requirements for meats, eggs, and raw fruits and vegetables.
  • Acquire food from approved sources, and do not serve food prepared in home kitchens.
  • Volunteers may not be familiar with safe food handling practices and should be made aware of the five fundamentals of safe food handling:
    • No bare hand contact with ready-to-eat items.
    • Keep meats and produce separate.
    • Raw meats should be kept separate from cooked meats.
    • Meats should be kept separate from produce.
    • Proper food temperature should be maintained.
    • Hot foods should be maintained at 140 degress F or above.
    • Cold foods should be maintained 40 degrees F or below.
    • Foods should not be left at temperatures between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F for more than four hours.
    • Food handlers should not handle food while ill.

Organizations should consult with regulatory officials in their community to develop and enhance their safe food service practices. Local environmental health agencies can provide education and professional guidance to fundraising organizers that, while not guaranteeing the absence of an outbreak, can make such events much safer. Through partnerships with local environmental health agencies, fundraisers can learn the basic principles of hazard identification and mitigation and deliver a safer food product.