Team's food poisoning not restaurant's fault

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November 05, 2008

No contaminants were found in food served at a West Geauga High School football team dinner Oct. 26 in which up to 70 people, including football players, cheerleaders and parents, became ill. No tampering occurred, but the cause of the illness was food-borne, according to test results released last week by the Geauga County Health District.

That means complete vindication for the Ramble Inn, the Newbury restaurant that donated the food, owner William Prots said last week.

"For us personally, we feel it clears us of any wrongdoing whatsoever," said Mr. Prots, who has owned the restaurant with his wife, Nicole, for the past four years. "Obviously, we'd have been thrilled had nothing ever happened, even though we're not responsible. We don't want anyone to get sick. The findings show what we said all along. We turned out excellent product."

Peggy Scherer, personal health services director for the county health district, explained that the food-borne illness was caused by bacteria. The particular bacteria found in the prime rib that was served is clostridium perfringens, which is very common, she said. "It exists in the intestines of healthy individuals and in healthy animals. It's found in the soil."

Ms. Scherer said cooking does not normally kill the spores of this bacteria, but it stops them from multiplying. "As long as the food is kept at a temperature above 140 degrees, there usually isn't a problem," she said. "You eat it and don't get sick." If the spores are at a temperature below that, they start to "germinate and multiply," she said.

The issue with the West G dinner was a "time and temperature problem," Ms. Scherer said. "It was too long at the wrong temperature."

Mr. Prots said the equipment at his restaurant was set to 145 degrees. "I set it myself," he said. "We had it there until it was picked up."

Food was picked up roughly at 3:15 and served at 5:30 p.m., resulting in an approximate two-hour window, according to the report. The ideal range for the bacteria to grow is 70 to 120 degrees for an hour and a half.

"As we said all along, once the product leaves here, we have no control over what happened," Mr. Prots said. "We know we had it at that temperature when it was picked up. We feel this totally vindicates us."

Ms. Scherer said food servers at the school indicated that, when they brought the food in, they lit the flame underneath the warming trays. "That does not make things real hot," she said. "We suspect that some of the meat that was near the bottom or right near the flame was probably OK, but the meat on top went into a dangerous temperature range."

As a result, those who ate the meat that had a lot more spores which were germinating became sick, she said. "The toxin that forms is what makes you sick."

Ms. Scherer said such illness is common from foods served in large quantities such as at buffets, banquets or wedding receptions.

"The prime rib probably already had this bacteria, but it is not in large amounts until the food comes out of temperature range," she said.

Had the situation been caused by the restaurant, Mr. Prots said, "Our customers here would have had the bacteria" and became ill. They did not, he said. "I've been a caterer for 20 years and been at this restaurant for four years and never had one complaint. Even though this was a complaint, it was not our product that was responsible."

Mr. Prots said he has been preparing dinners for the West Geauga School District for the past four years, and this was the second or third football dinner he provided.

He said his business has not suffered since the incident occurred. "We've had quite a bit of support from the West G parents knowing in their hearts from what we've done in the past that we had nothing to do it," Mr. Prots said.

"They have been a supporter in the past of the football dinners, and I assume our relationship with them will continue in the future," West Geauga School Superintendent Anthony Podojil said last week.

Although the investigation by the Chester Township Police Department is over, the district will continue to track down comments made by students that the food was tampered with, Dr. Podojil said.

"I'm sure the high school will do their due diligence of who said what and why someone would have said something to lead us to believe contamination was going on. We know the names of students potentially involved in discussions about this."

However, such conversations "are the normal things that go on with teenagers," Dr. Podojil said. "It's a chain of discussion, a three-sentence remark that becomes a 30-page document when it's done. We may get to the end and decide the kids were just speculating. That's probably what occurred."

Ms. Scherer met with students, parents, staff and administrators last week at the high school to answer questions and supply them with more information about food-borne illness and how food poisoning can be avoided.

"This is not a long-term problem," Ms. Scherer said of the illness, which includes diarrhea. "It's self-limiting. Once you get rid of the toxin, you get rid of the problem




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