Food that looks appetizing at a school cafeteria or a buffet banquet may harbor Clostridium perfringens, an important cause of food poisoning.
Clostridium bacteria are found in soil, in stool, and in the intestines of healthy people and of animals. Packages of uncooked meat or poultry frequently contain Clostridium. Clostridium can also be transferred into food from the hands of those preparing it.
Spores of Clostridium survive cooking. When the temperature drops back to less than about 140 degrees Fahrenheit, the spores germinate and begin to multiply.
Symptoms are caused by a toxin produced by the multiplying bacteria. The toxin can be destroyed by cooking.
Anyone can get Clostridium food poisoning. It is most common when food has been cooked in large quantities and then held for too long at room temperature or on a steam table.
Clostridium is commonly seen at schools, camps, banquets, and buffets.
Often, many people get sick from the same source.
The hallmark of Clostridium food poisoning is sudden, watery diarrhea accompanied by abdominal pain that may range from mild to severe.
Usually there is no fever (distinguishing it from Salmonella and others) and no vomiting (distinguishing it from Staph and others).
Clostridium does not spread directly from person to person, but someone with dirty hands can introduce Clostridium into food, where it will germinate and multiply.
Symptoms usually begin 8 to 12 hours after consuming contaminated food (sometimes 6 to 24 hours).
The illness is usually over within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms.
Clostridium perfringens food poisoning is suspected by the history and physical exam. A diagnosis might be confirmed with stool studies. Keep in mind that Clostridium are found in the stool of healthy people, so either large numbers (more than 1,000,000 organisms per gram of stool) or evidence of the toxin are needed.
Sometimes the diagnosis is made by finding Clostridium in the food.
Usually no treatment is needed, other than taking steps to prevent or treat dehydration.
Antibiotics are not useful in Clostridium food poisoning.
Clostridium grows best between 45 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Prepared foods should be kept cooler or warmer than this.
Wash hands before preparing or serving foods. When handling raw meat or poultry, consider them contaminated! Wash your hands and any surfaces they have touched before proceeding. Be sure that meat, poultry, and fish dishes are fully cooked and don’t interrupt cooking to finish it later.
Don’t leave prepared foods unrefrigerated for more than two hours. When foods are taken from warming tables, they should be refrigerated immediately, not left at room temperature to cool.
Prepared foods should be reheated to at least 165 degrees before serving.