70 staff members ill after Department of Health luncheon

Correction appended

Epidemiologists at the state Department of Health are investigating their agency’s own annual holiday luncheon after dozens of employees reported falling ill after the party last week.

About 70 staff members claim to have experienced gastrointestinal issues following the catered event at the Harold Runnels Building attended by more than 200 employees, according to a spokesman.

Health Secretary Lynn Gallagher wrote in an email to staff Monday that investigators have not identified a specific food from the party that may have caused the outbreak.

A team from the department’s Epidemiology and Response Division “believes that there may have been cross-contamination of menu items served during the luncheon,” she wrote.

Epidemiologists were still waiting for laboratory test results as of Monday, but Gallagher told staff the outbreak appears to have been caused by bacillus cereus or clostridium perfringens, toxins that can cause food-borne illness.

Clostridium perfringens is one of the most common causes of food poisoning in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Because cooking kills the bacteria, outbreaks usually occur after foods are prepared in large quantities and kept warm for a long period of time before serving.

Bacillus cereus can be found in foods that have been left to sit at room temperature for too long, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The department cautions that if food is to be stored for longer than two hours, hot foods should be kept hot at over 140 degrees and cold foods kept cold, at least 40 degrees or under.

“We will work to take appropriate steps to address food handling procedures with the caterer and prevent such problems in the future,” wrote, Gallagher, whose department is responsible for investigating food borne illness.

Spokesman Paul Rhien said the event was catered by a local business, but he did not specify which one when asked by a reporter to identify the company.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.

Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the following correction. A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the Department of Health is responsible for regulating food safety. That is the duty of the New Mexico Environment Department.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Thank you for joining the conversation on Santafenewmexican.com. Please familiarize yourself with the community guidelines. Avoid personal attacks: Lively, vigorous conversation is welcomed and encouraged, insults, name-calling and other personal attacks are not. No commercial peddling: Promotions of commercial goods and services are inappropriate to the purposes of this forum and can be removed. Respect copyrights: Post citations to sources appropriate to support your arguments, but refrain from posting entire copyrighted pieces. Be yourself: Accounts suspected of using fake identities can be removed from the forum.