The Salt Lake County Health Department (SLCoHD) has determined that a food item served Sunday night at the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall contained Staphylococcal enterotoxin, a common cause of foodborne illness that produces symptoms consistent with those reported by the affected individuals.
The toxin is caused by Staphylococcus aureus, common bacteria found on the skin that does not usually cause illness—unless it is introduced into improperly heated or cooled food. Staph bacteria are most often introduced into food when food handlers touch food with their bare hands. If that food is within the “food danger zone” of 40°F to 140°F, the bacteria can then 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.
“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.“
It is relatively rare to identify the specific organism that caused a foodborne illness outbreak. Health department epidemiologists and environmental health scientists began work late Sunday night to interview those affected and to inspect various kitchens and food items identified by those ill. The Utah Public Health Lab ultimately isolated the staph toxin from a food sample late Thursday night.
“It doesn’t really matter which specific organism caused this unfortunate illness,” continued Gamble. “Whether it had been salmonella, norovirus, or staph—the important message is that proper food handling will help prevent them all.”