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Bad food suspect in mass illness

A holiday party menu may have led to 125 people taking ill. The Health Department is trying to find the exact culprit.

By JENNIFER FARRELL, Times Staff Writer
Published December 12, 2003

CLEARWATER - When the nausea kicked in, everybody suspected the Seafood Newburgh.

A staple of banquets everywhere, shellfish mixed with warm cream sauce suddenly seemed like a bad idea when 125 people reported taking ill, mostly with diarrhea, after the annual holiday party for employees of Hospice of the Florida Suncoast.

At least two people were hospitalized for dehydration this week, and the Health Department confirmed Thursday it is investigating possible food poisoning at the city-owned Harborview Center, where the party for more than 900 Hospice employees and guests was held Saturday night.

"It has all the classic signs of a food-borne illness outbreak," said Julia Gill, epidemiology program manager at the Health Department. "We want to make sure that we identify that and prevent it from happening again."

Pinpointing the cause could take up to two weeks and will require detailed interviews with guests and stool samples from everyone who got sick, Gill said.

Officials have not determined the cause of the illness or whether it is contagious, but tests will be conducted for bacterias including salmonella and E. coli, and viruses including norovirus.

"We go through all of the food items," said Gill. "Condiments and everything."

Investigators also have inspected Harborview's kitchen and tested leftovers from the dinner, according to Joe Armstrong, executive vice president of Boston Concessions Group. The Cambridge, Mass. company is paid by the city to provide food service at the downtown conference facility.

Thursday, Armstrong said he is eager to get results of the Health Department's investigation, which Boston Concessions requested on Monday after receiving multiple complaints of illness starting Sunday.

"There's really nothing of any significance in our kitchen procedure for them to say, "Ah ha! Here's what happened,"' Armstrong said. "We just don't know until we hear back from them."

The Health Department is reviewing the dinner menu, which also included steamed vegetables, red potatoes, pork loin and roast beef, according to Hospice spokeswoman Louise Cleary.

Cleary, who said she had "a little dab of everything," did not take ill.

"I'm happy to report I did not," she said Thursday.

Cleary said 125 people who attended the party later reported gastrointestinal problems and many missed work.

Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Dunbar said the city is generally happy with Boston Concessions' performance.

"It appears that maybe something was amiss in some of the entrees," he said. "We're waiting for the Health Department report."

And the Seafood Newburgh?

Armstrong said it was ruled out as the culprit after leftovers were recycled into soup and served Sunday before any problems were reported.

No one who ate the soup reported getting sick, he said.

- Jennifer Farrell can be reached at 445-4160 or farrell@sptimes.com


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