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Officials probe cause as dozens sickened after Strathroy club's dinner

At least 57 people got sick after attending a recent Ducks Unlimited fundraising dinner in Strathroy, prompting local health officials to investigate a possible case of mass food poisoning, The Free Press has learned.

The Middlesex-London Health Unit received public complaints from people who got sick after attending a sold-out dinner for Strathroy-Caradoc Ducks Unlimited at the Strathroy Portuguese Canadian Club March 30.

“We don’t know the micro-organism yet. We haven’t had lab confirmation of anything yet, but all of their symptoms were gastrointestinal, diarrhea and vomiting. Some had a fever, some had nausea,” said Mary Lou Albanese, the health unit’s infectious disease control team manager.

The reported illnesses prompted a public health inspection of the facility two days later. The inspector found five infractions during the April 1 site visit, including one critical non-compliance issue that had the potential to pose an immediate food-borne illness risk.

The inspector found the facility failed to maintain pest control measures, didn’t have a trained food handler supervising the kitchen and didn’t ensure utensils, equipment and facilities were cleaned and sanitized. The inspector’s report also found the dishwasher wasn’t designed or maintained to ensure utensils are sanitized and the kitchen’s walls and ceilings weren’t clean and in good repair.

The inspector issued three remediation actions to the club, including implementing food handler education for its employees.

The facility was given a passing grade by health inspectors.

For a facility to be issued a conditional pass or a failing grade, it has to exceed a threshold of violations, said David Pavletic, food safety and healthy environments team manager.

“There could be many non-critical infractions and the operator may still get a green pass sign,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for there to be an infraction or two that is found during an inspection. Our public health inspectors try really hard to address those issues while they’re on site so they’re corrected during the inspection.”

The health unit has 15 full-time food safety inspectors who visit a wide variety of food preparation facilities, from grocery stores to restaurants and banquet halls.

Strathroy Portuguese Canadian Club board president Charlie Milhomens said the club is a non-profit community organization that is cooperating with health inspectors.

“The (club) is fully cooperating with the Middlesex-London Health Unit and await their findings and have no further comment at this time,” he said in an email.

In a statement, Strathroy-Caradoc Ducks Unlimited said they’re “devastated” people fell ill at their fundraiser.

“Our thoughts go out to those affected and the families who are dealing with this unfortunate situation,” the group said.

Public health officials did not contact everyone who attended the dinner and said the people who fell ill have since recovered, Albanese said. Some people with symptoms submitted stool samples to help the health unit and lab technicians pinpoint the exact micro-organism responsible.

The agency is expecting the lab results by week’s end, Albanese said.

Health officials may never know what specific food at the dinner might have been responsible for the illnesses, Albanese said.

“That is often very challenging to find out,” she said.

The rash of illnesses is a reminder to the public to seek medical help and report any suspected food poisoning cases to the health unit, Albanese said.

“It’s a wise thing to call us and report it so that way it can be followed up on,” she said. “Food-borne illnesses can be quite serious depending on what the organism is that’s making them ill. People shouldn’t take that lightly.”