New Brunswick

Bacteria believed linked to fatality at N.B. Christmas supper

The bacteria Clostridium perfringens most likely caused a woman’s death after eating at a Nackawic-area community supper last week, New Brunswick's acting chief medical officer of health says.

Clostridium perfringens suspected, chief medical officer says

The bacteria Clostridium perfringens most likely caused a woman’s death after eating at a Nackawic-area community supper last week, New Brunswick's acting chief medical officer of health says.

Roughly 100 people attended the community supper on Dec. 5, where a traditional holiday meal of turkey, vegetables, gravy and pies was served.

Dr. Jennifer Russell, the acting chief medical officer of health, said Clostridium perfringens is the likely cause of death of a woman in the Nackawic area. (CBC)
Within a few hours of the supper, several people became sick. One woman died and 30 other people reported signs of gastrointestinal illness, diarrhea and abdominal pain.

Bessie Scott has been identified as the woman who died, and on Friday family and friends filed into a funeral home in Nackawic to say goodbye.

Alex Hoffmann and his wife were among those who fell ill after eating the tainted food.

"At two o'clock we both woke up with terrible bellyache. And then I had to go that night three times …," he said.

Hoffman said he thought they had come down with the flu. 

The following morning the couple received calls from others who who were at the dinner, followed by a call from public health officials.

Dr. Jennifer Russell, the acting chief medical officer of health, said on Friday that public health officials have taken samples of the leftover food from the Christmas supper and are trying to determine the precise cause of the infections.

“But definitely the timeline of when those symptoms occurred was within 12 hours, so that is a pretty quick onset and so that in and of itself would tell us what kind of bacteria we are looking for,” Russell said.

“The most likely one that I discussed with Dr. Yves Leger [a local public health officer] is sClostridium perfringen.”

The supper was held in Nackawic, roughly 60 kilometres west of Fredericton.

Clostridium perfringens infections are caused by eating contaminated food.

Foods that are commonly linked to the bacteria include:

  • Thick soups.
  • Stews.
  • Raw meat.
  • Poultry, beef, gravies.
  • Dried or pre-cooked foods.
  • Cooked beans.
  • Meat pies.

The Public Health Agency of Canada says contaminated food typically needs to have large numbers of bacteria present to cause human illness.

"Outbreaks often happen in institutions, including hospitals, cafeterias, prisons, catering firms, schools and long-term care facilities. In these institutions, large amounts of food may be prepared in advance and kept warm (20 C to 60 C) until meal time. This allows the bacteria to multiply," according to the federal public health agency.

Anyone can become sick from the bacteria, but seniors, young children and people with weakened immune systems "are at a greater risk of becoming sick."

E. coli ruled out

Russell ruled out E. coli poisoning because those who became ill all had symptoms within 24 hours. E.coli symptoms can take 24 hours to show up but normally take three to four days, Russell said.

Russell said she does not know when the test results from the samples will be returned to the province. She said that information should allow public health officials to link the illness to the food that was served.

In 2011, the provincial government considered imposing food licensing and inspection requirements on not-for-profit events, such as church suppers.

But Madeleine Dubé, the health minister at the time, said the provincial government had received public feedback that “licensing and inspection requirements are too demanding for not-for-profit events.”

Alex Hoffman and his wife thought they had the flu. (CBC)

On Friday, Russell said the decision to require food inspection requirements on community events is a government decision and she couldn’t comment on the issue.

However, she said the Nackawic death raises the importance of food safety issues.

“I agree that food safety is very, very important and again today is an opportunity to talk about food safety and prevention especially coming into the Christmas season when these types of suppers can take place on a pretty regular basis, so really raising people’s awareness now is our role,” she said.