What is Clostridium perfringens and how can pubs avoid it?

By Nikkie Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

Doors reopened: the pub is operated by Hall & Woodhouse (image credit: photo © Philip Halling (cc-by-sa/2.0)
Doors reopened: the pub is operated by Hall & Woodhouse (image credit: photo © Philip Halling (cc-by-sa/2.0)
Investigations into why more than 60 diners at a Somerset pub fell ill have discovered the cause as Clostridium perfringens.

The Old Farmhouse in Nailsea, north Somerset, which is operated by Hall & Woodhouse, kept its kitchen shut while investigations by North Somerset Council and Public Health England (PHE) continue but has now reopened.

At the time, a spokesperson for the pub company said: “Hall & Woodhouse has been made aware that a number of guests visiting the Old Farmhouse, Nailsea, on Sunday, subsequently became ill with sickness and diarrhoea.

“This pub is one of our Business Partnerships and although we are not directly responsible for the pub, we are supporting the business partner during this time."

“We understand that in the interest of guests, the business partner has closed the public house and will reopen once they are completely satisfied that it is safe to do so.”

PHE and North Somerset Council worked together and initial investigations indicated the most likely organism that caused the illness was C. perfringens.

Under guidance

What did PHE say?

PHE south-west consultant in health protection Bayad Nozad said: “C. perfringens live normally in the human and animal intestine, and in the environment.

“The illness is usually caused by eating food contaminated with large numbers of C. perfringens bacteria that produce enough toxin in the intestines to cause illness.

“People infected with C. perfringens usually develop diarrhoea and abdominal cramps within six to 24 hours (typically eight to 12 hours).

“The illness usually begins suddenly and last for less than 24 hours and is not passed from one person to another.

“Those affected have reported mild to moderate illness including diarrhoea, vomiting, nausea and abdominal cramps.

“It is good news the majority of affected individuals appear to have recovered quickly. Our advice for anyone else affected is to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.

“We are currently working with environmental health officers from North Somerset Council to ensure the venue has appropriate precautions and procedures in place.”

The council’s assistant director for operations Mandy Bishop said: ”Since we became aware of the reported illness among diners, North Somerset Council’s environmental health officers have visited the premises to inspect the kitchen, assess preparation, cooking and storage practices.

“The venue has reopened and is operating under the guidance of the environmental health officers at North Somerset Council.”

Food adviser to UKHospitality, Lisa Ackerley, outlined what the organism is and how licensees can avoid it.

She said: “C. perfringens is a spore-forming bacterium, which means it is very resistant to heat.

“It is found in many different types of foods, from raw meat and poultry to vegetables, herbs and spices.

“However well you cook food, the spores will still be there afterwards. At this point, they don’t do you any harm – we eat bacterial spores like this every day with no ill effects."

Top tips

Ackerley added: “The problems start when you don’t eat food straight away, cool it down far too slowly, and give C. perfringens spores time to germinate to form fully fledged bacteria.

“These bacteria love to grow in foods, particularly deep dishes of stews or tightly-wrapped foods where oxygen is scarce.

“If this happens and the food is eaten cold or not reheated adequately, the bacteria reform spores inside the gut, releasing toxins, which are what cause symptoms of diarrhoea, abdominal pain or rarely it can cause death.”

Ackerley also revealed tips on how pubs can avoid a C. perfringens outbreak:

  • Cook and serve food straight away – it is the safest thing to do
  • Food should be cooled from 55°C to 20°C within two hours – this is important because slow cooling slows the spores to germinate and you don’t want that
  • Cool food rapidly using various methods:
    • Using a blast chiller, portion and blast chill the food
    • Otherwise, lightly cover, leave to cool and put in the chiller
    • Use an ice bath to help cooling
    • Pre-chill clean containers
    • Stir stews frequently to help them cool
  • Slice meats or take poultry off the bone
  • Keep food cold, preferably below 5°C
  • If serving cold, serve straight from the chiller or make sure the display keeps it below 8°C

She added: "If serving hot, reheat rapidly and thoroughly, and use a thermometer to check all parts of the dish have reached 75°C. Don’t guess, remember gravy will heat up quicker than chunks of meat so even if the liquid in a stew is boiling, the meat may not be hot enough.

“By following simple good practices, food poisoning from C. perfringens should never darken a licensee's door.

“Ensure the food management system includes these simple rules and that everyone involved in preparing and cooking food knows what they need to do.”

The Morning Advertiser ​contacted Hall & Woodhouse but had not received a response at time of publication.

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