DHEC: Tega Cay BBQ contaminated through heating, cooling process

Food poisoning from the Tega Cay Volunteer Fire Department's March 30 charity barbecue probably originated during the meat's cooling process, officials with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control said Friday after identifying the bacteria that caused it.

The volunteer firefighters had cooked the refrigerated meat when it arrived that weekend, then placed it in coolers before preparing and re-cooking it the day of the barbecue, Fire Chief Scott Szymanski said Friday.

Samples of all the food served at the barbecue were taken to the DHEC lab, but the bacteria was only discovered in the pork, DHEC spokesman Adam Myrick said.

"The spores occur naturally in meat," Myrick of the bacteria discovered in the barbecue's pork. "When it is cooked, the spores are made inactive. However, if the meat is left at room temperature, that's when the spores are able to reproduce cells. In an inside, typical, kitchen food preparation setting, you don't want the food to be at room temperature any more than two hours. It's a post-cooking bacteria."

March 30 was the 26th annual barbecue in which the meat had been prepared that way, Szymanski said, and plans for the 27th are uncertain.

"If we decide to do it next year, we'll consult DHEC on our food preparation," he said.

Between 2,500 and 3,000 people attended the event, which raises money primarily for children who have been burned and for community athletic events. About 70 of those reported stomach cramps and diarrhea for about 24 hours, Myrick said. Two or three older people who were admitted to the hospital were released within the next few days, Szymanski said.

A bacteria, Clostridium perfringens, was found in specimens from both patients and the pork, Myrick said.

"It is commonly associated with improper handling and storage of food after cooking," a DHEC press release stated.

DHEC recommends discarding any leftover food from the barbecue.

Small numbers of the perfringens often are found primarily in meats, meat products and gravy after cooking, and multiply to food poisoning levels during cool down and storage, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Web site.

The site said this type of food poisoning is "one of the most commonly reported foodborne illnesses in the U.S."

The volunteer fire department offered to return money to all the people who attended the barbecue. As of Friday, only about five people had asked for a refund, Szymanski said.

The chief thanked DHEC for working with the department.

"If one person got sick, it was too much for us," he said. "Our main concern is the citizens."