Health officials investigating the salmonella poisoning of nearly 750 people at a church supper in St. Mary's County this month have determined that the stuffed hams served to patrons were contaminated during the cooking and cooling processes at two local markets.
The officials said yesterday that they will not penalize the markets.
"We're not considering taking any action," said Dr. Ebenezer Israel, county health officer. "If we felt there were serious problems at either of the [markets], we would deny them an operating permit. But it looks like this was a one-time mistake."
One woman died and more than half of the 1,400 people who attended the Nov. 2 annual dinner of Our Lady of Wayside Roman Catholic Church in Chaptico became sick after eating stuffed ham tainted with salmonella.
Grace Oatley, 81, of Chaptico died two days after eating the contaminated meat. The death of a Baltimore woman who suffered a fatal heart attack after eating food from the supper was not caused by salmonella, health officials said.
Investigators examined the refrigeration, cooking, preparation and serving of the hams in an effort to pinpoint the source of the salmonella, Israel said. Turkey, fried oysters, sweet potatoes, green beans, coleslaw and rolls also were served at the dinner but were ruled out early as the agent of the salmonella bacteria.
The investigation was conducted by the county and state health departments, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture. County officials released the findings last night.
"We traced the steps of how the food was prepared and did some lab testing," Israel said. "We found multiple problems with the cooking and cooling processes."
The 38 hams that were served at the church supper had been delivered in a refrigerated truck Oct. 30 to the church's parish hall, where 20 volunteers spent the day stuffing them with kale, cabbage and spices and wrapping them in cheesecloth. Then they were taken to a market in Mechanicsville, where they were tightly packed in three stainless steel drums and boiled for five hours.
"It's very likely that a number of the hams were contaminated before they were cooked and that the germs survived the steaming process," Israel said. "The way they had packed the ham, portions of the meat could not be cooked adequately."
Germs on slicer, in cooler
After the hams were cooked, they were sent to another market in Chaptico, where they were refrigerated, sliced and delivered Nov. 1 to the church hall. State health department investigators found salmonella on the circular slicer that was used and on the walk-in cooler where the hams were stored.
"The cooler is a place where you cool the food down very quickly so that even if there are germs in the food that survived the cooking process, those germs would not multiply," Israel said. "In this case, the hams were placed one on top of another, preventing the meat from cooling adequately and allowing the [salmonella bacteria] to multiply."
At the supper, church volunteers say, they kept small plates of ham out and refilled the plates every five to 10 minutes with ham from the refrigerator.
Attempts to avoid mistake
The salmonella outbreak was an unfortunate mistake that church volunteers tried to avoid, Israel said.
"The reason why they decided to centralize the cooking process was because there was a concern that cooking it in individual homes could result in problems," Israel said. "Everyone was trying to do the right thing."
Of those who fell ill, 161 reported to hospital emergency rooms complaining of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, stomach cramps and other flulike symptoms. It was the largest salmonella outbreak in Maryland in at least five years.
Health officials in Baltimore are investigating what caused 49 people to become ill after a luncheon during a health care conference at the Baltimore Convention Center last week.
Those who became ill reported stomach cramps and diarrhea. None went to area hospitals for treatment. Chicken has been identified as the possible culprit in that case.
"Any time you deal with raw meat -- whether poultry, beef or pork -- you have to assume there's germs on the meat," said Israel. "That's why you cook it and cool it."
Thorough cooking needed
Because the organisms that cause food-borne illnesses are so widespread, experts think the only sure way to prevent disease is to cook food thoroughly. That means cooking eggs until the yolks are solid and meat until no trace of pink remains.
Experts also advise food handlers to measure the internal temperature of poultry and stuffed meat at the center of the food, making sure it is heated to 165 degrees.
Pub Date: 11/26/97