Food contaminated with Staphylococcal enterotoxin was the source of the food poisoning outbreak at the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall in Salt Lake City last week, the Salt Lake County Health Department (SLCoHD) has determined. About 50 people were taken to the hospital.
The toxin is caused by Staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria found on the skin that can cause illness if it makes its way into heated or cooled food. Most often this happens when food handlers touch food with their bare hands. If food is stored or served within the “food danger zone” of 40° F to 140° F, the bacteria can grow and produce the toxin.
“This is an important reminder to anyone who prepares food—either commercially or at home—that hand washing, avoiding bare-hand contact with food, and keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold are all essential to preventing illness,” said Andrea Gamble, SLCoHD environmental health scientist.
The St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall undergoes surprise inspections at least two times per year and it has consistently done well in those inspections. “This incident at St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall appears to be an isolated food handling error,” said Gamble. “Unfortunately, a single lapse in temperature controls or food-contact protocols can cause problems.”
The Utah Public Health Lab isolated the staph toxin from a food sample on Thursday. “It doesn’t really matter which specific organism caused this unfortunate illness,” said Gamble. “Whether it had been salmonella, norovirus, or staph—the important message is that proper food handling will help prevent them all.”