Report: Salmonella tied to barbecue

COVINGTON - A report released by the East Metro Health District shows that an outbreak of food-borne pathogen Salmonella Newport in Newton County could be associated with a barbecue festival held in October.

After being contacted by the Newton County Environmental Health and the Newton County Health Department on Oct. 17, which reported several calls from individuals who had attended the event and later experienced symptoms associated with salmonella, the epidemiology unit at East Metro Health District, with the help of the Georgia Division of Public Health and the DeKalb County Board of Health, conducted what they term "a scientific statistical analysis."

Vernon Goins, public information officer for the East Metro Health District, said the study indicates that the source of salmonella came from a ticketed barbecue meal Oct. 12 as part of Sherman's Last Burning, a barbecue festival and cook-off organized and sponsored by the Covington Lions Club at the Newton County Fairgrounds from Oct. 11-13.

"The only sure way we could say it was that night and that tent was if we were there," Goins admitted.

Such events - fairs or festivals - don't require the health department to provide health permits. Also, because the event ended before the health department was contacted, no food samples could be collected.

"While a review of (the barbecue preparer) Bare Knuckles BBQ, procedures identified no issues, it is impossible to determine if temperatures were properly monitored and maintained during preparation and the festival," according to the report.

Instead, the study was conducted by medical results from 67 reported illnesses and interviews with 155 people who had symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, or who attended the event and had no symptoms.

Stool samples from 17 of 18 collected samples confirmed Salmonella Newport.

Of the 155 interviews, 11 individuals sought medical attention and two were hospitalized.

"We hate it anybody got sick - one person is one too many. We hope the community knows we would never do it intentionally," said Covington Lions Club President Mike Free. "The Lions Club is, of course, mortified that it happened to us."

An estimated 3,000 visitors attended the three-day barbecue event.

Goins said "it is unusual" when all individuals eating contaminated food do not get sick, but he said some attendees might have had minor symptoms they didn't report.

"Our reactions are individual," he said about the way salmonella affects the population in general. "Symptoms can range, and they did somewhat in this study."

As a result of the findings, 17 Lions Club members and the owner of Bare Knuckles BBQ have completed a food safety certification course and attended a food-borne illness prevention and infection control presentation.

"They've been extremely cooperative and very up front," Goins said about event organizers. "That helped with the investigation."

The club still plans to hold Sherman's Last Burning next year.

"(The Lions Club has) been around for 50 years and has been feeding people for 35 years - we have a chili supper in February and a chicken dinner in April," Free said. "It could happen to anybody. Even if you are doing the best you can, people can come in from outside, and you don't have any control about it."

He said next year the club plans to enlist the help of the health department in order to help prevent any outbreak or illness.

"We would encourage any municipality groups, civic groups or others to consult with the health department on these events," Goins said. "By law, we can't require a permit unless we're involved. This incident points at the need of involving the health department. We want people to exercise the options that are available to them."