Fort Mill Times

Tainted barbecue found at fundraiser

The peninsula city may be growing, but it's still small enough that word gets around quick.

When 70 residents all became sick with the same food poison-like symptoms, it didn't take long before a possible connection was made to the Tega Cay Volunteer Fire Department's annual barbecue fundraiser, held this year on Sunday, March 30. The State Department of Health and Environmental Control believes the food is contaminated and urges anyone who still has some - even if it's stashed in a freezer - to throw it away.

DHEC spokesman Adam Myrick said Monday investigators are still waiting for lab results on tests done on samples from the barbecue.

"Maybe in the next few days or so, we'll know something," he said.

Those who became sick after eating food served at the barbecue, including three people who were hospitalized, reported the same symptoms - mostly intense stomach cramps and diarrhea.

The fire department served more than 2,500 plates, officials said. Both pork and chicken were served, but Myrick said DHEC is looking more at the pork as a culprit.

Tega Cay Fire Chief Scott Szymanski said the meat was purchased from US Food Service in Fort Mill, but DHEC doesn't think the company is the source of the contamination.

"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. One of the food handlers could have been sick. A lot of it depends on the cultures growing in a lab."

One hospitalized barbecue participant had been released by last Thursday morning and none were in critical condition, Myrick said.

"It's usually those who have weakened immune systems or some other chronic condition who have to go into the hospital," Myrick said.

"We're working with DHEC to find out if it was a vendor, something that happened in the processing or from a handler," the recently-elected Szymanski said. He estimated that "between cooks, people serving, probably 40 to 50 people" came in contact with the food before it made it into the hands of consumers. DHEC was given a list of their names and contact information.

Szymanski said he and the department's members are upset that an otherwise successful fundraiser may have played a role in people getting sick.

"We're here to help people, not hurt them," he said. "Most people who called to make us aware were gracious. I told them they could have a refund and most people said they just wanted us to know. Our main concern is the welfare of everyone who came to our barbecue."

Among them is Ceil Runde, wife of Tega Cay Mayor Bob Runde. She said she was ill for about six or seven hours after eating the barbecue.

"It wasn't that bad," she said. "It didn't even occur to me that's what it was, but I went to a meeting the next morning and a few people were not there because they called in sick because they had food poisoning.

"I feel bad for the guys [at the department] because they are trying to do a good thing for the community."

Melissa Blumenthal, who lives on the Charlotte side of Lake Wylie, wrote in an e-mail that "We bought two dinners. My husband got pork and I got chicken. I didn't eat the chicken because it was under cooked - you could tell because the skin was still bumpy with a slimy glaze. The meat was very pink which could have been due to the smoking process, but I threw it away.

"I feel bad about it because fundraiser barbecues do very well. I hope they recover form this."

• Herald reporter Karen Bair contributed to this story.