The Associated Press reports that a new law packing a $1,000 fine for anyone operating a for-profit food business without a license comes only weeks after a Stoneville caterer was granted a state permit soon after it served a luncheon in which dozens became ill.
The Clarion-Ledger, a Jackson newspaper, reported on the Greenville illnesses Monday as part of a series examining the Mississippi Department of Health. The newspaper said few people have heard about the outbreak of what agency officials think was Norwalk virus, an illness that causes diarrhea and vomiting and is spread through fecal to oral contact.
Several hundred participants at the Mississippi State Tennis Association’s State Seniors Championship attended a luncheon on May 6. The next day dozens of them got sick, according to tennis players who became ill.
The following night several more people attending an event at Greenville Christian School became ill.
Jo’s Personal Touch and Catering of Stoneville, which at the time was operating without a license, prepared the food for both events, the newspaper said.
Health Department officials, because they did not learn of the outbreak until days after the food had been disposed of, concluded the outbreak was viral and could not say it was caused by food.
The incident was not reported to the public because it “was a self-contained event, and there was no danger of a big outbreak,” District Health Officer Alfio Rausa said.
Rausa said the caterer applied for a permit and received one after an inspection found no violations of the food code.
The law going into effect Saturday provides for a $1,000 fine for anyone operating a for-profit food business without a license. Food vendors who make less than $5,000 will be exempt.
Jo’s Personal Touch and Catering was given a permit dated May 10, four days after the tennis tournament luncheon. There was no previous record of the caterer in the Health Department’s online database, the newspaper said.
Rausa said the caterer was investigated but, because there was no food left to test, was eliminated as the source of the outbreak.
Jo Harris, the business owner, said she did everything she was supposed to. She got her certification in ServSafe, a required food safety training. She consulted the Health Department while building her facility to make sure it met all specifications. She said she even reported the incident to the Health Department.
Harris said she served food to more than 3,000 people at 14 events that week and people only got sick at those two.
Dr. Bryant McCrary, a pediatrician, told the newspaper he was skeptical of the Health Department’s conclusion.
McCrary, a doctor in Gulfport who attended the seniors’ tennis event, said he planned to report his illness to the Health Department “because it’s something they would probably be interested in,” but he never did because he heard an investigation was under way and felt he would likely be contacted.
However, he said the Health Department has not contacted him.
McCrary said he suffered fits of vomiting and diarrhea for about 12 hours after leaving the tournament Sunday night to visit his mother in Arkansas. McCrary said he then passed the illness on to his 80-year-old mother, who ended up in the hospital.
According to the Food and Drug Administration’s Bad Bug Book, Norwalk virus is primarily a food-borne illness but can be transmitted from person to person.
McCrary says the diagnosis of Norwalk virus makes sense because he passed it along to his mother that night, but thinks the common denominator that triggered the outbreak was likely the pork tenderloin and variety of salads served at the tournament luncheon. He said about a dozen of the members in his tennis club got sick.
Norwalk virus usually is transmitted through contaminated water and foods, most commonly shellfish and salad ingredients. Secondary person-to-person transmission has been documented, according to the FDA.
“It all seems to center around that luncheon,” McCrary said.
One of the organizers of the event at the Greenville Christian School, who the newspaper said would not be identified by name, said people got sick after the function. She expressed doubt the illness was food-borne because people who were not at the event got sick, too, she said. How many people became ill is unclear.
Jim Bonney, member services director for the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association, said the virus is hard to kill and spreads rapidly, most commonly through food.
“That stuff is highly contagious once it gets out there. That’s why you have to isolate the person who has it from the food supply for at least 24 hours,” said Bonney, who teaches food safety certification courses for restaurant managers.
Rausa said the Health Department, after receiving reports of illness in Greenville, contacted about 260 people, interviewed about 200 and found about 127 with symptoms.