Tega Cay barbecue illnesses reach 70

TEGA CAY -- The number of people who reported falling ill after a Tega Cay Volunteer Fire Department barbecue last weekend rose to 70 on Thursday, including three people who were hospitalized, a state health spokesman said.

One hospitalized barbecue participant had been released by Thursday morning and none were in critical condition, said Adam Myrick, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

"It's usually those who have weakened immune systems or some other chronic condition who have to go into the hospital," Myrick said. "People with other health concerns. Based on the people we've talked to, everybody else was back up to speed within 24 hours."

DHEC is urging anyone who carried out packaged remains of the barbecue to throw it out.

"They all ate pork," Myrick said of those who became ill. "That associates all of them."

It will be several days before lab culture results from the food will be available, he said.

Those who fell ill suffered severe cramps and diarrhea, symptoms similar to food-poisoning.

"We have no reason to believe the problem was with the distributor," Myrick said. "We are focusing on the handling and preparation of the food in advance of the barbecue."

There are no DHEC sanitation regulations required of the innumerable community groups that hold events such as the one at the Tega Cay's fire department, Myrick said, and incidents such as these are rare.

Kim Brown, spokeswoman for U.S. Foodservice, which supplied meat for the event, said no customers from Tega Cay or elsewhere had contacted them about becoming ill. The company is participating in the DHEC investigation, using its quality assurance staff to be sure food safety procedures were followed.

Fire Chief Scott Szymanski said more than 2,500 people attended the 26th annual fundraiser. Proceeds go to burn victims at a children's hospital and to community youth recreation projects. About 3,000 pounds of pork was prepared over the weekend, with several dozen people handling it.

"We've never had anything like this," Szymanski said. "It's quite the social event. We don't make that much money anymore. People come to socialize."

The fire chief has contacted everyone who became ill and has offered a refund to anyone who attended the event.

"We feel terrible," Szymanski said.

By Thursday afternoon, only one person had asked for a refund, he said.

The Tega Cay situation was noticed by another organization about to host a barbecue. The Clover Optimist Club will hold its event from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 12 next to Killians Service Center on Bethel Street.

"It made us take a long look to see what we can do better to keep it from happening," said club secretary-treasurer Josie Skinnell.

The club doesn't prepare food in advance to assure it doesn't sit out, she said, and volunteers use antibacterial soap and plastic gloves.

"We ask any member who has a cold or doesn't feel well not to come and serve," she said.

Meanwhile, Szymanski wants anyone who became ill and needs help to call the fire department at 548-4321.

"We'll get back to them right away," he said.