State Epidemiologist says bacteria in meat led to 110 sick inmates at Cass County Jail

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FARGO—Three weeks after an apparent foodborne illness outbreak at the Cass County Jail, the North Dakota Department of Health determined what likely made about 110 inmates sick over a two-day stretch in mid-December.

Although an official cause is still pending, State Epidemiologist Laura Cronquist says testing by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points to Clostridium perfringens bacteria as the culprit, based on stool samples from several inmates.

Clostridium perfringens is commonly found on raw meat and poultry, according to the CDC, and infection can occur when foods are prepared in large quantities and kept warm for a long time before serving.

"It's really common," Cronquist said, adding, "It's not really surprising that it's an institution that this happened in."

Last month's outbreak was the second major outbreak at the Cass County Jail in four years. In the latest case, about 40 percent of the jail's 282 inmates had symptoms including diarrhea and nausea. No inmates were hospitalized, and jail staff said the illness was short-lived.

Clostridium perfringens was also the likely cause of a larger illness outbreak at the jail in November 2011, when 90 percent of the 184 inmates inmates came down with diarrhea and vomiting. In that case, the organism was also found inside sick inmates, but couldn't be confirmed in the most likely food source, the chili macaroni served that day.

Jail administrator Capt. Andy Frobig, who wasn't on staff when the 2011 outbreak occurred, said he's anxious to get the bottom of the issue but won't make any changes until the final investigation report comes out.

He said the problem could be due to how kitchen staffers take temperatures of food in large batches, or could involve leftover food that's used to make dishes such as casseroles.

"If they can identify a specific reason, we'll obviously make adjustments to prevent it from happening again," Frobig said.

He's asked the jail's food service provider, CBM Managed Services of Sioux Falls, S.D., to get in touch with an inspector at Fargo Cass Public Health, which is working with the state Health Department and CDC on the matter.

Even though the pathogen has been pinpointed, Cronquist said the CDC will still test samples of food that was served to inmates shortly before they became ill last month.

The Cass County Jail freezes meal samples daily to save in the event of illness in a process referred to in the corrections industry as a "dead man's tray." Cronquist said she's working with the CDC to determine which of those specific foods will be tested.