Food for thought

Careless mass food preparation can lead to massive bacterial food poisoning outbreaks

Food for thought

In ancient times, people blamed all unexplained phenomena, especially disease, on magic. Today, however, with epidemics and pandemics plaguing the world, any carelessness in food preparation is enough to trigger disease and chaos.

Slapdash kitchen habits, lack of knowledge about the causes and prevention of foodborne illnesses can lead to mass food poisoning outbreaks caused by a bacteria named clostridium perfringens.

Clostridium perfringens food poisoning is a major problem faced by the food service industry since most of the outbreaks are associated with mass feeding operations. This type of food poisoning is a threat to public health as the number of outbreaks of clostridial food poisoning is increasing every year in both developing and developed countries.

Foods most often associated with outbreaks of C. perfringens are usually meat or poultry that have been cooked and held for some time before serving. Outbreaks often occur at large banquets, restaurants, cafeterias, hostel messes, schools and hospitals where large amounts of meat, poultry and gravies are prepared. Outbreaks can start in home kitchens. Symptoms of the disease are abdominal cramps, diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting and rarely fever. These usually appear 4 to 22 hours after eating impacted food has been consumed and may persist for 1 to 5 days.

Clostridium perfringens grows anaerobically. That is, it grows best when there is no air or free oxygen present in the environment. The organisms are rod-shaped bacteria and can form spores. In the spore form, they are more difficult to destroy than in the vegetative or growing state. These organisms are present almost everywhere, but chief sources are soil, human or animal intestinal tracts, faecal material and sewage. Because they are found everywhere, it is difficult to keep them out of the food supply chain. Vegetative C. perfringens cells in food can easily be destroyed by thoroughly cooking meat and poultry at high heat, those in the spore form are heat resistant. Thus, we cannot rely on cooking to destroy these bacteria. The three principles related to the control of foodborne disease are:

limit or prevent contamination of the food by the microorganism

destroy the microorganism by some treatment of the food

prevent or inhibit the growth of the microorganism

As soil is an essential reservoir of C. perfringen and an important source of transmission of this pathogen from animals to humans, a cross-sectional study was designed to determine its distribution and prevalence in the soil of the Punjab. Nine districts including Attock, Chakwal, Sahiwal, Dera Ghazi Khan, Sheikhupura, Gujranwala, Sargodha, Faisalabad and Lahore were targetted for testing. Soil samples from 10 per cent of these districts’ villages were taken and tested through a sensitive technique, real-time PCR, for the presence of this pathogen in soil. Results showed that pathogen was highly distributed in all the districts.

The highest prevalence was found in Chakwal, followed by Attock and Dera Ghazi Khan. The prevalence is significantly affected by various physical and chemical risk factors. On the basis of the study, it is recommended that animal farms should be constructed in the areas where the soil is found negative for C. perfringens to avoid transmission of the pathogen from animals to humans. Moreover, farms should be away from the animal markets, and water sources. Also, animals should not be kept in areas with dense human populations.

Food for thought