The incident was tailor-made for snarky headlines: Foodborne illness sickens hundreds of attendees at conference dedicated to food safety. That’s exactly what happened at last April’s Food Safety Summit (FSS) in Baltimore, when 216 of 1,300 attendees fell ill with symptoms such as diarrhea, abdominal cramping and nausea. The culprit: A catered chicken dish served at lunch and likely contaminated with Clostridium perfringens, a bacteria commonly found on raw meat and chicken. If any lesson could be learned from that outbreak, it was that foodborne illness can happen to anyone, anywhere. And while they admit that outbreaks can even strike the most food safety-conscious among us, the organizers of this year’s 17th annual Food Safety Summit are significantly bolstering their efforts to ensure that another outbreak doesn’t happen. They’re also making the most of the unfortunate incident by turning the outbreak into a learning opportunity. Part of this year’s conference will include a panel event to look back at last year’s outbreak investigation from the perspective of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and compare it to other state-level outbreak investigations. The panel is an opportunity for food industry professionals to better understand outbreak investigations from the viewpoint of health departments, said Hal King, Ph.D., panel moderator and director of food safety for Chick-Fil-A. Some might also pick up pointers on how their companies can avoid similar outbreaks. Attendees will also learn that such outbreaks are much more commonplace than they might think. The majority of outbreaks don’t cross state lines and therefore don’t draw much attention, nor the involvement of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If not for the ironic context, last year’s outbreak might not have even made the news, King said. “How many state-level outbreak investigations of Clostridium perfringens have you seen in the news lately? Zero. How many have occurred? A lot,” he told Food Safety News. “It’s kind of like a fire happening at the fire chief association’s trade show,” said Scott Wolters, director of tradeshows & conferences for BNP Media, producers of the Food Safety Summit. While all of the catering at the Baltimore Convention Center is handled by national catering company Centerplate, FSS organizers are opting for a number of additional food-safety checks within their control, according to Wolters. He was clear that Centerplate already follows their food-safety procedures “to a T.” But to make sure that risks are kept to a minimum, organizers will start by having a pre-event food-safety audit by a third-party consultant. They’ll also have an independent food-safety consultant on site during the event to monitor for potential problems. And they’ve invited the Maryland state health department to send a representative to monitor conditions at the event. Menu selection will be done a little more cautiously this year as well. “You can’t really avoid putting meat and poultry on the menu, but you can avoid some susceptible items like gravy,” Wolters said. “We’ll be making sure internal temperatures are measured on a regular basis and recorded properly at regular intervals.” Centerplate is also keen to avoid a repeat. The company’s regional head chef will oversee all cooking operations, and their regional vice president will even be on hand at the conference. Wolters said that, in his experience planning and executing more than 1,000 events, foodborne illness outbreaks aren’t usual, but they aren’t necessarily unusual either. King shared a similar sentiment, saying that the outbreak opened up the opportunity to discuss all the lower-key outbreaks that normally get investigated by state health officials but don’t involve CDC, which describes most of the outbreaks that draw relatively little attention. “If you look at the Maryland outbreak, it’s a good opportunity to see at the state level,” he said. “These are going on all the time in states, and it’s an opportunity to be aware of that.”