Health officials say they’re sure food from a specific vendor at the Rifle Rodeo in Garfield County, CO, caused an outbreak that sickened 40 percent of attendees, but they won’t name the rodeo organizer or the food vendor — neither of whom obtained required permits and neither of whom will be fined.

Garfield County Fairgrounds Colorado
The entrance to the Garfield County Fairgrounds in Colorado.

About 80 of the 200 rodeo attendees reported getting sick with gastrointestinal illnesses after attending the June 5 event, according to a Wednesday update from the Garfield County Public Health Department. Even though the rodeo was at the county fairgrounds, public health was apparently not notified by staff there about the upcoming event with food vendors.

Of the victims, about one-fourth were children younger than 18, a county spokeswoman said Thursday afternoon. She said the county had not officially been notified of any victims being hospitalized.

“Lab samples sent to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment came back positive for Clostridium perfringens — a leading cause of foodborne illness,” according to the county’s online update. “Case interviews of rodeo attendees linked the source of the illness to food served by an unlicensed vendor at the event.”

The executive director of Garfield County Public Health placed the blame for the outbreak on the event organizer, saying the Rifle Rodeo organizer did not obtain required permits.

Yvonne Long
Yvonne Long

“… therefore Garfield County Public Health was not aware of or able to inspect food at the event prior to the June 5 outbreak,” said executive director Yvonne Long in the online statement.

“One thing that we want the public to know is that for public events it is the coordinator’s responsibility to find out and comply with the rules, regulations, permits, sales tax requirements and licenses required to host an event.”

The specific food vendor implicated in the outbreak has a “primary location” that has been inspected, is licensed and is regulated, according to the county health department, but county officials refused Thursday to name the vendor.

“The county did not name the food vendor because the vendor has been in business for years without violations and public health is using this as an opportunity to work with the vendor to promote healthy practices and prevent further issues,” the county’s spokeswoman said in an email Thursday.

Improper holding temperatures for food is a primary cause of Clostridium perfringens contamination, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Garfield County Public Health Department.

Similarly, the county will not name the individual who organized the Rifle Rodeo.

“The organization is named ‘Rifle Rodeo,’ We did not provide the personal name of the organizer because this is a first occurrence, and the organizer is working closely with public health to comply with the county,” the county’s spokeswoman said.

The health department executive director is quoted by several local media outlets as saying no one will be fined in relation to the outbreak, even though the proper permits were not secured.

Standard procedure for the department if a vendor “fails to pull required permits, has an outbreak, or has areas of improvement noted on a health inspection” is to deliver written notification and work with the entity on safety regulations, according to the Wednesday update.

Clostridium perfringens bacteria under magnification.
Clostridium perfringens bacteria under magnification.

The county does not have plans to take any specific action or change procedures in an attempt to prevent such situations in the future.

Regarding communication between county departments, such as the county fairgrounds staff and public health inspectors, “the county is ensuring the fairgrounds staff does so,” according to the county’s spokeswoman.

“As noted in the release, event organizers are required to obtain permits and the county will continue to ensure good food safety practices for such temporary events,” the spokeswoman said.

The Denver Post reported some rodeo attendees who got sick said they ate pulled pork at the event. The CDC reports that the majority of Clostridium perfringens outbreaks are associated with undercooked meats and large quantities of food prepared for groups and left unrefrigerated or unheated for too long. If food is kept between 70 degrees and 140 degrees, it is likely to grow Clostridium perfringens bacteria.

Food poisoning from Clostridium perfringens is fairly common, but is typically not too severe, and is often mistaken for the 24-hour flu.

However, the Type C strain of Clostridium perfringens can cause a more serious condition called Pig-bel Syndrome. This syndrome can cause death of intestinal cells and can often be fatal.

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