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Anzac Day Food Poisoning Mystery Solved?

September 3, 2019

The investigation into the outbreak that gave nearly 40 people acute food poisoning at an official Anzac Day president’s lunch has concluded — and the most likely culprit may surprise you.

Speculation following the event pointed the finger at the duck and rabbit terrine that was served at the luncheon; however, after testing samples of the terrine, investigators are now saying that the source of the outbreak was probably a quince, fig and barberry jam relish that was served with the dish.

More than 100 interviews with diners and staff revealed a pattern that pointed investigators in the direction of the condiment; however, when ingredients used to make the relish were tested, no definitive source was identified either. Attempts to recreate the dodgy relish under various conditions were unsuccessful.

Investigators spent three months trying to recreate the relish that caused dozens of people to become “violently ill” with rapid onset food poisoning, and sent at least seven people to the hospital.

“It was a pretty dramatic food-borne outbreak," said Dr Brett Sutton, Victoria's chief health officer.

"Dehydrated barberries, barberries with boiling water, the relish refrigerated for three days, the relish left out, none of it allowed sufficient growth of bacteria that would have caused that illness," said Dr Sutton. So, while investigators still believe that the relish was the source of the outbreak, they could not confirm the result with absolute certainty.

“There are often many limitations in food-borne disease outbreak investigations, so it is not unusual for an investigation such as this to result in an inconclusive outcome,” explained Dr Sutton. "I suspect that something in that relish, barberries or the fig jam, carried a toxin at the time and the boiling water that was used in the processing wasn't sufficient to kill it.“

Cooking temperatures and microbial toxins

It’s a common misconception that cooking kills all harmful bacteria and other contaminants in food.

The reality is that some pathogenic microorganisms (e.g. bacteria, fungi, viruses) produce toxins that are heat-stable, such as Staphylococcus aureus, meaning they are not destroyed by high heat. So, even after the microorganisms themselves are dead, the toxins they leave behind (in contaminated food) can cause serious illness.

To prevent food poisoning events such as the Anzac Day disaster, it’s extremely important that Food Handlers follow safe food handling procedures, especially when it comes to keeping food out of the Temperature Danger Zone (5°C – 60°C), the temperature range in which bacteria grow most rapidly.

Not only that, but they must also understand:

  • proper cleaning and sanitising techniques
  • the importance of good personal hygiene
  • how to prevent cross-contamination

Food-borne illness outbreaks are most frequently caused by one (or a combination) of these things, which is one reason why food safety training and food handling certification is a must for any food business or facility. Another reason is that it is a requirement under the law.

To find out more about food safety training in Australia:

  1. Visit our Food Safety Supervisor course page.
  2. Visit our Food Handler course page
  3. Contact our support team