Diners Struck Down with Food Poisoning at Anzac Day Luncheon

MCG function room where dozens of people "dropped like flies" from food poisoning at an exclusive Anzac Day luncheon has reopened following an investigation.
Diners Struck Down with Food Poisoning at Anzac Day Luncheon
May 8, 2019

The Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) Olympic Room, where dozens of people went down "left, right and centre" with food poisoning at an exclusive Anzac Day AFL luncheon, has reopened.

According to a spokesperson for the Melbourne Cricket Club, events immediately following the incident were moved to other rooms to allow for "additional precautionary cleaning" and to accommodate investigators from the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Victoria Health Department is currently investigating the sudden outbreak; samples have been taken from affected diners, food and the kitchen in which food was prepared for guests in the Olympic Room. The investigation is expected to take weeks.

In an interview with 3AW radio, AFL boss Gillon McLachlan described the incident: "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."

Another diner at the luncheon, Jan McTaggart, told 9 News that up to 30 people were “violently ill” within minutes of finishing their entrees, bathrooms were “covered in vomit” and sick bays were quickly overwhelmed. Click here to watch the interview.

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

Dr Angie Bone, Victoria's acting Chief Health Officer, speculated on the cause of the sudden outbreak: "There [are] certain types of bugs, such as Staphylococcus, that live on our skin [and] which produce toxins ... they can enter food from food handling ... then you ingest the toxin [and] you get an immediate reaction.”

It has been suggested that the source of the outbreak was a rabbit and chicken terrine that was served as an entree, but this has yet to be confirmed.

Are microbial toxins to blame for the Anzac Day outbreak?

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 outbreak. Microbial toxins are produced by bacteria, fungi and some viruses; microbial toxins damage host tissues and disable the immune system, which is why symptoms are experienced almost immediately. Some bacterial toxins, such as those produced by Clostridium botulinum (the bacteria that causes botulism), are the most potent toxins in the natural world.

Bacterial toxins are classified as either:

  • endotoxins
  • exotoxins

Endotoxins are typically part of the bacterial outer membrane and are not released until the bacterium is destroyed by the immune system; when endotoxins are broken down in the body, they cause severe inflammation and can even lead to sepsis.

Exotoxins, on the other hand, are actively generated and secreted. Exotoxins are highly potent and can cause major damage to the host by destroying cells or disrupting normal cellular metabolism.

Many microbial toxins, including those produced by Staphylococcus aureus, are heat-stable or heat resistant; this means that even if the microorganism that produced the toxin is destroyed in the cooking process, the food is still contaminated and is not safe to eat.

What can cause food poisoning?

A number of factors can contribute to food poisoning. Unfortunately, the most common causes can be attributed to Food Handler actions and/or behaviours, such as:

  • not cooking food to the temperature required 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 to prevent cross-contamination
  • working while experiencing symptoms of illness (e.g. vomiting, diarrhoea, sore throat, fever)
  • cross-contaminating food with contaminants (biological, physical, chemical) from their bodies or clothing (e.g. handling food after wiping sweat from their face or after wiping their hands on a soiled apron)
  • cross-contaminating food by handling food improperly (e.g. handling cooked food after handling raw food or handling ready-to-eat foods with unwashed hands)

How to prevent food poisoning in your business

The best and easiest way to prevent food poisoning from happening in your food business is by investing in food safety training and education. It is strongly recommended that all food businesses:

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

Employing a Food Safety Supervisor is a legal 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.

The Australian Institute of Food Safety (AIFS) 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 that can damage your business and your bottom line.