Diners Struck Down with Food Poisoning at Exclusive Anzac Day Luncheon

Written by Food Safety First on May 4, 2019

Up to 30 diners at an exclusive Anzac Day AFL luncheon at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) were left distressed and light-headed, some fainted and several were taken to hospital with suspected food poisoning.

AFL boss Gillon McLachlan, who was in attendance but managed to avoid contracting the illness, told 3AW radio: “It happened very quickly and people … were being affected at the same time … I didn’t see vomiting. I saw people fainting and I saw people distressed and light-headed. I think there was a level of pain, but light-headedness I would have said.”

McLachlan may not have seen people vomiting, but according to one diner, tens of people were “violently ill” within minutes of finishing their entrees. Bathrooms were “covered in vomit” and sick bays were quickly overwhelmed, said Jan McTaggart in an interview with 9 News. Click here to watch the interview.

“People were literally dropping like flies during the speeches,” added Eddie McGuire, president of the AFL Collingwood Football Club.

The Victorian Health Department has launched an investigation into the sudden outbreak, but it could take several weeks to pinpoint the cause of the illness. Samples will be taken from affected diners, food and the kitchen in which food was prepared for guests in the Olympic Room.

“We can speculate that there could be a number of issues either to do with the food that was served or the way it was handled,” said Dr Angie Bone, Victoria’s acting Chief Health Officer, in a recent interview. “We can speculate over the type of bug it was because the [illness] onset was so quick after eating, and normally those are bugs that are associated with toxins rather than viruses.”

There has been speculation that the source of the outbreak was a rabbit and chicken terrine, but Dr Bone could not confirm that particular dish caused the illness.

The venue’s operator, Melbourne Cricket Club, is trying to pinpoint what sparked the illness.

“We are currently investigating to determine the cause of these incidents,” read a statement. “We are working in cooperation with health services and our partners to understand what caused the medical issues.”

Microbial toxins suspected

As suggested by Dr Bone, the rapid onset of symptoms points to a toxin-producing microorganism as the most likely culprit behind the Anzac Day incident. Microbial toxins are produced by bacteria, fungi and some viruses; microbial toxins damage host tissues and disable the immune system, hence the immediate presentation of symptoms. Some bacterial toxins, such as those produced by Clostridium botulinum (the bacteria that causes botulism), are the most potent natural toxins known.

Bacterial toxins are classified as either:

  • exotoxins
  • endotoxins

Exotoxins are generated and actively secreted, while endotoxins remain part of the bacteria. Usually, an endotoxin is part of the bacterial outer membrane, and it is not released until the bacterium is killed by the immune system, which can cause severe inflammation and can even lead to sepsis.

Exotoxins are highly potent and can cause major damage to the host by destroying cells or disrupting normal cellular metabolism. Exotoxins may be secreted, or, like endotoxins, may be released when the bacterium cell is broken down in the body.

It is a common misconception that all potentially harmful contaminants are destroyed by the cooking process. This is true for most pathogens, but many microbial toxins, including those produced by Staphylococcus aureus, are heat-stable or heat resistant — which means they are not destroyed by the cooking process.

In this case, while the bacteria might be dead, the food is still contaminated with potent toxins that can cause food poisoning. For some people (e.g. children under five years of age, the elderly, pregnant women, immunocompromised people), these symptoms can be life-threatening.

How to prevent food poisoning

A number of factors can contribute to food poisoning, but the most common causes can be (sadly) attributed to Food Handler behaviours, such as:

  • not cooking food to the required temperature to destroy dangerous bacteria
  • not storing food properly (e.g. allowing high-risk foods to be in the Temperature Danger Zone (5°C–60°C) for too long)
  • cleaning but not sanitising (cleaning removes visible dirt and grime but does not kill bacteria)
  • not washing hands properly or frequently enough
  • working while experiencing symptoms of illness (e.g. vomiting, diarrhoea, sore throat, fever)
  • cross-contaminating food with contaminants (biological, physical or chemical) from their bodies or clothing (e.g. handling food after touching their face or wiping sweat from their forehead)
  • cross-contaminating food by handling food improperly (e.g. handling cooked food after handling raw food without washing hands first)

The best and easiest way to prevent food poisoning from happening in your food business is by investing in food safety training and education, for example:

  • hiring a Food Safety Supervisor to take responsibility for food safety in your business
  • providing food safety training and certification to every employee who handles food in your business

By law, employing a Food Safety Supervisor is a mandatory requirement in most states and territories in Australia. In all others, employing a Food Safety Supervisor is highly recommended to manage the food safety risks in your business. All Food Handlers must be trained and possess the necessary skills for handling food safely.

Our Food Handler and Food Safety Supervisor courses have been developed to teach Australian food workers how to safely handle food to reduce food poisoning and other food safety risks.