Woman died from salmonella-contaminated food served at First Communion party

Inquest into death of Sandra O’Brien, 55, heard it was linked to cold turkey supplied by a catering firm that resulted in a major outbreak of a rare form of salmonella in north Co Dublin in May 2017
Woman died from salmonella-contaminated food served at First Communion party

The family of Sandra O'Brien: her niece, Nicola Jordan; husband, Michael O'Brien; and son, Josh O'Brien at Dublin District Coroner's Court on Monday. Picture: Colin Keegan

A Dublin woman who was a keen fitness fanatic died from poisoning as a result of eating food contaminated with salmonella that was served at a First Holy Communion party.

An inquest into the death of Sandra O’Brien heard it was linked to cold turkey supplied by a catering firm that resulted in a major outbreak of a rare form of salmonella in north Co Dublin in May 2017.

Ms O’Brien, 55, a mother of one from Brookdale Way, Swords, Co Dublin, was found dead in the bedroom of her home on May 21, 2017.

The inquest heard the form of infection, salmonella Brandenburg, was typically only fatal in 0.5% of cases.

A post-mortem on Ms O’Brien’s body found she died as a result of acute myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) due to salmonella infection.

A jury of six men returned a narrative verdict which recorded how the “fit and healthy woman” contracted salmonella from food provided by a catering company.

The hearing at Dublin District Coroner’s Court was told Ms O’Brien had attended a First Holy Communion party for her grand-niece, Keyleigh, in Ballyboughal, Co Dublin, on May 13, 2017.

Evidence was heard that the food for the event had been provided by Flanreil Food Services, which had been operating from O’Dwyer’s Pub on Strand Road in Portmarnock, Co Dublin.

The dead woman’s husband, Michael O’Brien, who had not attended the party, said he was out shopping with his wife two days later when she complained of feeling unwell.

Mr O’Brien, a member of An Garda Síochána based in Mountjoy, described how she suffered repeated vomiting and diarrhoea after she returned home before they decided she needed to go to hospital.

On the same day, Mr O’Brien said he had gone to Temple Street Children’s Hospital where his wife’s grand-niece had gone with similar complaints.

After being treated at Beaumont Hospital, Mr O’Brien said it was subsequently confirmed by tests that his wife had contracted salmonella.

Despite taking medication, he claimed she continued to suffer vomiting and diarrhoea, although she said she was feeling a bit better by May 20, 2017, and had eaten something for the first time in five days.

The following morning, Mr O’Brien said he saw his wife was asleep as he left for work around 6am.

On returning home at about 3.15pm, he described finding her still in bed and he knew she was dead as her face was grey and her body was cold to touch.

He said he realised his wife must have passed away during the night but he was not aware of it when he got up that morning.

Mr O’Brien described how his wife enjoyed good health and was “extremely fit”.

The inquest heard she had regularly competed in marathons and half-marathons as well as attending fitness classes three times a week and would run 50km on average per week.

Ms O’Brien’s niece, Nicola Judge, who hosted the communion party, said her aunt had only eaten a turkey roll at the event.

Ms Judge said seven people including her daughter had become ill following the party.

Evidence of public health specialist

Dr Helena Murray, a specialist in public health medicine who chaired the multidisciplinary team in control of the salmonella outbreak, told the inquest that the source of the food poisoning had been traced to cold turkey supplied by Flanreil.

The inquest heard there had been 35 confirmed cases of salmonella and another 37 cases of suspected salmonella linked to the outbreak which included two kitchen staff and two chefs from the catering company.

A total of nine people were admitted to hospital as a result of the outbreak.

Evidence was heard that Flanreil had provided catering to 18 parties attended by more than 1,650 people over the course of that weekend.

Dr Murray said some other cases may have been missed because people were reluctant to report being sick.

She said the progress of the work of the outbreak control team had been impacted by the “staggered reporting of information” by the catering firm.

Dr Murray said the food management system operated by the company was inadequate to control the risk of food poisoning.

A closure order was imposed on Flanreil on May 19, 2017, which remained in place until June 15, 2017, after the company had conducted a review of its operations.

Breaches of food safety legislation

The inquest heard the catering company was fined €6,000 at Swords District Court in November 2019 after it admitted several breaches of food safety legislation.

The company’s two directors, Rory Reilly and Ciaran Flanagan, were each fined €6,200 after pleading guilty to similar offences.

A report on the outbreak published earlier this month contained a number of recommendations, including the provision of a family liaison officer in future cases involving a fatality and greater use of social media, including the geo-targeting of recipients for the dissemination of information, about similar outbreaks.

Other recommendations included raising the awareness of the risk involved of party catering services provided by companies whose main business was “on site” and the need for such firms to carry out a risk assessment for any expansion of their business as well as to ensure the proper preparation, storage and transport of food for “off-site” events.

The jury also endorsed the recommendations of the HSE’s outbreak control team.

The coroner, Dr Clare Keane, offered her condolences to Ms O’Brien’s family on the “devastating and untimely loss of a vibrant, healthy woman who was in excellent physical condition before this tragic event”.

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