Several news reports state that the North Dakota Department of health has made a preliminary diagnosis about what sickened 110 inmates in the Cass County Jail last month. Clostridium perfringens was most likely the culprit. Stool samples from several inmates revealed the pathogenic bacteria.
This bacteria is found on raw meat and poultry. It grows when foods are prepared in large quantities, as in jails, nursing homes, and schools, and that food is kept warm, but not quite warm enough, for long periods of time, or is improperly cooled. This type of outbreak is quite common in large institutions.
The outbreak in December 2015 was the second one at the Cass County Jail in the last four years. About 40% of the 282 inmates at the jail were sick with symptoms that included diarrhea and nausea.
Fargo Cass Public Health is working with the North Dakota Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on this outbreak. Samples of food are being tested. The Jail freezes meal samples every day and saves them as what is called a “dead man’s tray.” This helps officials test for pathogens in case of an outbreak.
Clostridium perfringens bacteria produces spores that make a toxin. Symptoms of this illness include intense abdominal cramps and diarrhea that usually begin 8 to 22 hours after exposure. Small amounts of this bacteria can persist in foods after cooking. If the cooling time is too long, or if food is held at temperature below 140°F, the spores can grow and produce toxins. This is one of the most commonly reported foodborne illness in the United States.
To prevent this type of outbreak, food handlers must wash their hands thoroughly before preparing or serving foods, and after handling raw meat and raw poultry. All meat and poultry products should be throughly cooked to at least 165°F and cooled quickly and properly. If foods are kept hot, they must be kept above 140°F and checked regularly with a food thermometer.