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Thanksgiving dinner deaths caused by common bacteria, officials say

ANTIOCH, Calif. -- A common foodborne bacteria caused an illness that left three people dead and sickened 22 others who attended a dinner at an events hall in the San Francisco suburb of Antioch on Thanksgiving Day, health officials said Tuesday.

Dr. Louise McNitt, deputy health officer with Contra Costa County Health Services, said the deaths and illnesses were caused by bacteria named Clostridium perfringens.

“Clostridium is one of the most common foodborne illnesses in the U.S. It can be found in the human intestine without hurting us, but eating food containing large amounts of this bacteria can cause illness and in some cases death,” McNitt said. The bacteria can be found in the soil, in people and in animals, she said.

Officials identified the three people who died as Christopher Cappetti, 43, Chooi Keng Cheah, 59, and Jane Evans, 69. All were residents of assisted living facilities in Antioch.

The bacteria was likely found in one of the food items that wasn’t cooked to the right temperature or held at the right temperature when eaten, McNitt said.

Dr. Marilyn Underwood, environmental health director for the county, said while the bacteria was identified, it was not determined which dish contained it, CBS San Francisco reported.

“Our investigation was not able to determine exactly what people ate that made them sick,” she said. “But after extensive interviews we found most of the ill people ate turkey and mashed potatoes and they all ate around the same time.”

Some dishes served at the event, including cooked turkey, were brought to the site after they were prepared in private homes, Underwood said.

McNitt said most strains of the bacteria are harmless and that there is no way to measure what would have been a lethal level in the victims.

“This bacteria usually causes fairly mild symptoms, such as stomach cramping and diarrhea that lasts for 6 to 12 hours,” said McNitt, adding that it can more adversely impact those with compromised immune systems. “It can vary from person to person as to how they react to illness.”

Officials said proper food handling is essential to prevent foodborne illness, including cooking foods to proper temperatures; cooling and storing them appropriately if they’re not going to be eaten right away; separating raw meats from foods that won’t be cooked; storing food properly; and washing hands and cooking surfaces often.

“We’re saddened for the families that suffered losses this holiday season. We encourage anyone planning charity events where food will be served to the public to contact us to understand the permitting process and to learn about food safety,” said Underwood.