This traditional St. Patrick’s Day food could cause severe illness if not prepared correctly.
If corned beef and cabbage make your stomach begin to growl with anticipation, then you are probably excited about St. Patrick’s Day this coming Friday. Just be careful with your meal prep so that your corned beef doesn’t turn your March 17th celebration into an extended relationship with your bathroom and your bed.
Corned beef, when prepared or stored incorrectly, may become a hub for Clostridium perfringens, which causes “one of the most common types of food-borne illness in the United States,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In fact, the CDC estimates that these bacteria cause about 1 million cases of gastroenteritis—which can cause severe cramping and diarrhea—every year.
C. perfringens has been on the record for getting in the way of celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day in America as far back as 1993, and perhaps even sooner. That year, a local delicatessen in Cleveland, Ohio, had purchased 1,400 pounds of raw, salt-cured corned beef in anticipation of the heavy demands for the holiday. The shop started prepping the beef five days in advance, boiling it for three hours before allowing it to cool at room temperature and then refrigerating it. On March 16th and 17th, the corned beef was kept in a warmer for sales and used to make sandwiches for catering. Starting at 11 AM, those sandwiches spent the entire day at room temperature until they were eaten. The Cleveland City Health Department later received 171 reports of food poisoning consistent with C. perfringens, which were ultimately linked to consumption of the deli’s corned beef.
That same year, Virginia health officials reported that more than three-quarters of the people who attended a 115-person traditional St. Patrick’s Day dinner also presented with similar symptoms, and one person was even hospitalized. “Corned beef was the only food item associated with the illness,” health officials noted at the time. In that case, the corned beef had been cooked over the course of two days, stored in a home refrigerator, then taken directly to the party for slicing. Once at the party, it was placed under heat lamps for at least 90 minutes before the first person was served.
Following these outbreaks, health officials in Cleveland and Virginia recommended that any meat “not served immediately after cooking be divided into small pieces, placed in shallow pans, and chilled rapidly on ice before refrigerating.” They also recommended that meat not be reheated until immediately before serving.
Follow-up investigations implied, but could not conclude, that the corned beef had not been infected before being delivered to the caterer or the deli. It is highly likely that the corned beef became infected during preparation, rather than through the supplier, as is often the case with food-borne outbreaks.
C. perfringens-containing corned beef was also linked to the death of television broadcaster and former Scotland international soccer player Bob Wilson’s son, Mitchell Carey, back in 2011. Carey suffered organ failure and died after contracting C. perfringens type A, an extremely rare form of the bacteria. Carey’s death was initially attributed to his stepping on a sea urchin while vacationing in Greece, but coroners later reported that the actual source of the infection was “likely to have come from eating” a corned-beef sandwich from Aldi.
While it is quite unlikely that you will contract C. perfringens type A from your St. Paddy’s Day corned-beef delights, taking the necessary precautions with your corned-beef preparation could go a long way toward keeping your holiday happy for you and your friends and family.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has created an entire corned-beef safety manual, which recommends “allowing the brisket to stand for about 20 minutes after removing from the heat,” but emphasizing that once the beef is done cooking, it must be “cooled in the refrigerator quickly” and that leftovers should be reheated to 165 °F “as measured with a food thermometer.” The CDC also notes that the “very young and elderly are most at risk for C. perfringens infection and can experience more severe symptoms that may last for one to two weeks.”