Tamale pie might be what sickened 137 jail inmates

The health department found bacteria in their food.

Jail food probably isn't great to begin with, and it also might be what caused dozens of Minnesota inmates to get sick at the same time.

Last month, 137 inmates at Ramsey County's Adult Detention Center were all suffering from stomach pain, diarrhea, and vomiting. 

That many inmates all getting sick at the same time is quite unusual, with undersheriff Joe Paget telling the Pioneer Press he's never seen anything like it in his 28 years with the county. The Minnesota Department of Health launched an investigation.

Though not completely conclusive, the department's test results are in, and they suggest that the inmates' food was the culprit.

In a statement to GoMN on Wednesday, state health officials said they tested sample trays of food served for lunch and dinner on Sept. 8 – the day before inmates started showing symptoms – and a bacteria called Clostridium perfringens was found in a sample of "tamale pie and fluffy rice."

That's the exact bacteria the department told GoMN it suspected last month, based on the inmates' symptoms.

When we looked it up, we learned those are bacteria associated with food poisoning. They cause about 1 million illnesses a year nationwide, the CDC says

“C. perfringens is a common bacteria that lives in the environment and can be a common cause of bacterial intoxication if food is not handled appropriately with respect to time and temperature," the department of health said.

But officials add that the results aren't enough on their own to implicate the tamale pie and rice, "due to the difficulty of this type of food testing."

“However, the identification of C. perfringens in the tamale pie support other investigation findings. Bacterial intoxication, specifically C. perfringens enterotoxin, was the likely cause of the outbreak," the department said.

Preventing it from happening again

The Ramsey County sheriff’s office has a contract with Summit Food Service to provide and serve food at the jail. 

Debbie Albert, a spokeswoman for Summit, told GoMN: 

"Food safety is our top priority and we continuously work to ensure our food service operations comply with the standards of our company and our facilities. While food has not been conclusively identified as the source of the symptoms at Ramsey County Jail, we take these issues very seriously and have been working closely with the health department and our client."

The state department of health also said county health officials conducted an environmental health assessment at the facility to address food safety issues and prevent additional illness from happening in the future.

The fiancé of an inmate at the jail told the Pioneer Press that after getting sick during the outbreak, her man is choosing to stick with ramen noodles from the vending machine.

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