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Outbreak News

Isle firm linked to airline food ills

Gate Gourmet food may have led to 45 cases of poisoning

By Allison Schaefers

aschaefers@starbulletin.com

Thursday, May 19, 2005

An airline caterer in Honolulu that recently got a warning from the Food and Drug Administration for violating public health and sanitation requirements has been linked to a major food-poisoning outbreak.

Contaminated carrots served by Gate Gourmet to passengers on flights out of Honolulu on Aug. 22-24, 2004, resulted in 45 cases of food poisoning in travelers to 22 U.S. states, Australia, American Samoa and Japan, said state epidemiologist Paul Effler.

"We think this is an important outbreak because while there is no evidence of intentional contamination, it does indicate the rapidity that contaminated food can be spread around the world in a relatively short period of time," Effler said.

Gate Gourmet, which employs 230 people in Hawaii, provides catering for an average of 10,000 to 15,000 airline passengers a day in Honolulu for Northwest, Delta, United, Hawaiian and Aloha airlines, said Gate Gourmet spokesman John Bronson.

Although Bronson acknowledged the recent warning by the FDA, he disavowed knowledge of any complaints related to a food-poisoning outbreak.

"We've got a good record with the FDA," Bronson said. The company operates 115 kitchens around the world and serves an estimated 195 million meals to airline passengers each year, he said.

FDA inspectors issued a warning letter last month to Gate Gourmet, citing unsanitary conditions in its Honolulu facility's food-preparations areas. The inspectors found flies and cockroaches near food, cooked meat kept above required temperatures and "a pink slimy substance was dripping onto the conveyor at the 'clean end' of the pot washing machine," according to the FDA's letter.

Gate Gourmet said it has fired its general manager in Honolulu and has hired a hygiene specialist and more janitors.

The state Health Department began investigating Gate Gourmet after receiving seven complaints from the Japanese Ministry of Health about airline passengers who had come from Honolulu and were suffering from severe diarrhea linked to the Shigella bacteria, Effler said.

The bacteria, transmitted through fecal matter, can cause bloody diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps.

Ernie Lyon of Orlando, Fla., said the illness he contracted was so severe that it's unlikely he'll travel to Hawaii again or eat airline food.

"I thought I was going to die," Lyon said. His temperature hit 104 degrees and he racked up $3,000 in medical bills, he said.

After collection companies started calling Lyon, he said he contacted the Seattle legal firm Marler Clark LLP, which won $15.6 million from Jack in the Box over a child sickened by a tainted hamburger. A lawsuit is expected to be filed soon.

Although Shigella exposure doesn't make everybody sick, the germ is highly contagious, Effler said.

The symptoms, which typically become apparent within 12 hours to a week of exposure, usually last for several days, Effler said.

"It's a good thing the incubation period for Shigella is so long," Effler said. "There just aren't that many bathrooms on airplanes."

After being contacted by Japan, Hawaii's Disease Outbreak Control Division put out a global alert to see if it could trace any Shigella outbreaks to Honolulu, Effler said.

"It's not possible to say whether the contamination occurred at Gate Gourmet or out in the field; we looked for evidence, but it wasn't there," Effler said.

Stool samples of Gate Gourmet workers were tested to determine if they had contacted Shigella and spread the germ, but lab results failed to establish culpability, Effler said.

"We can't determine that the outbreak was caused by the caterers, but we still think that it is incredibly important to inspect them regularly and make sure that they are following all food-safety rules and regulations," he said.

Only passengers on airlines served by Gate Gourmet reported illnesses, Effler said.

The Health Department recommended that Gate Gourmet modify its food-handling practices by making sure food is stored at safe temperatures and asking food handlers to mark their work, Effler said.

Gate Gourmet was placed on provisional status in April following an FDA inspection, which accused company employees of preparing food in dirty, bug-infested areas and using their hands to load ice that would later be used in passenger drinks.

Gate Gourmet's Honolulu kitchen was reinspected during an unannounced FDA visit on Tuesday and has been taken off provisional status, said Mary Ellen Taylor, a spokeswoman for the FDA.

"Gate Gourmet's top priority is compliance with all applicable government health and sanitation standards and its own high internal criteria, and we are gratified that the FDA has determined that the Honolulu facility satisfies agency requirements," Bronson said.

Infectious shigella germ often spread through food

What is Shigella? An infectious germ in the human intestine that is commonly spread both through food and by person-to-person contact.

What foods can transmit Shigella? The germ can be found in raw vegetables, milk and dairy products, poultry and a variety of salads, such as potato, tuna, shrimp, macaroni and chicken.

How common is it? About 300,000 cases of shigellosis, or Shigella poisoning, occur annually in the United States each year, with a substantial number of these cases reportedly connected to food.

What are the symptoms? Those who have been infected with the Shigella germ report severe diarrhea, fever, nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps and straining to have a bowel movement. Most recover after experiencing flu-like symptoms, although some people have recurring bouts of the illness and some die.

What was a bad outbreak? In 1994, an outbreak of Shigella aboard the cruise ship Viking Serenade resulted in reports from about 600 passengers and crew members of illness during the cruise. One 78-year-old man died.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

More on this outbreak: Gate Gourmet Shigella Outbreak

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