Alaska News

Foodborne illness outbreak among Homer hospital employees linked to single food item

Health officials have traced the source of a foodborne illness outbreak that sickened dozens of hospital workers in Homer to a single item, the Department of Health and Social Services said in a release Monday.

It was a Cubano sandwich, experts who investigated the incident think. In fact, it was probably the pulled pork inside of it, said Jeremy Ayers, section manager with the Food Safety and Sanitation Program within the Division of Environmental Health.

When investigating an outbreak, epidemiologists look at people’s symptoms and when they began. They start to form an idea of what dish was the likely offender. In this case a lot of signs pointed to the Cubano, Ayers said.

“[The] statistics that they came up with were pretty compelling that that sandwich was the implicated food item,” Ayers said.

Experts determined that the Homer incident likely involved a pathogen associated with cooked meat and poultry called Clostridium perfringens.

It’s a common cause behind a lot of foodborne illnesses nationally, Ayers said. If meat is cooled improperly — either cooled too slowly, or if the food isn’t kept cold enough — the spore of the bacteria can grow and proliferate through the food.

When a person consumes the bacteria it then produces toxins in the human body.

The department is still waiting on the Centers for Disease Control to fully confirm that the bacteria was the culprit, he said.

In total, 80 South Peninsula Hospital employees reported gastrointestinal illness symptoms after eating food brought in for employees meals from local establishments.

It’s fairly rare for Alaska to see an outbreak of such magnitude when it’s not associated with some sort of national foodborne illness outbreak, Ayers said.

The sandwich was not sold to the general public and Ayers said the agency has no more concern about risks to the public going forward.

Only hospital staff ate the food and no patients consumed it, health officials said.

Almost all symptoms resolved within 24 hours, health officials wrote. No one who ate the food reportedly needed hospitalization, health officials said.

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