A report released Friday by the East Metro Health District found that the October outbreak of salmonella in Newton County was associated with consumption of pulled pork sold by the Covington Lions Club at Sherman's Last Burning.
A total of 67 illnesses were reported among attendees at the event, which took place from Oct. 12-14 at the Newton County Fairgrounds. According to the report, stool cultures from 17 of the cases tested positive for Salmonella Newport.
Of those 67 reported cases, 28 individuals sought medical attention and five people were hospitalized.
"The Lions Club is just mortified that people got sick at our event," said Covington Lions Club President Mike Free. "We're just glad that no one got seriously hurt."
The report concluded that salmonella was significantly associated with four factors: attendance on Oct. 12, eating the ticketed meal prepared by the Lions Club on Oct. 12, eating the pulled pork from the meal on Oct. 12 and consumption of some "other" food item from the ticketed meal.
"We couldn't conclude that they ate the exact same foods," said Vernon Goins, public information officer for the East Metro Health District, a division of the Georgia Department of Public Health. "But the timing seems to be pretty conclusive."
There were an estimated 1,000 ticketed meals sold on Oct. 12. Other food items included in the ticketed meal were barbecue ribs, baked beans, coleslaw, bread and chips. Sweet tea was also available.
Attendance on other days of the festival, consumption of the ribs also sold by the Lions Club and consumption of other food items sold at the festival were not found to be associated with the outbreak.
Because Sherman's Last Burning had ended by the time the Department of Public Health was notified of the outbreak, no environmental samples from the food sold at the festival were available for testing.
Therefore much of the report's findings are the result of a statistical analysis performed by Public Health staff who interviewed 155 individuals for the report.
The report found that "it is unclear at what step the contamination took place. It is plausible given the low number of cases compared to the number of meals served that there may have been a low level of contamination in the pulled pork."
BareKnuckles BBQ, a competitive barbecue team from Covington, prepared the barbecue sold by the Lions Club. BareKnuckles team leader Jim Stancil is a member of the Lions Club and prepared the food as a favor to the Lions Club. Lions Club volunteers assisted BareKnuckles cooks in the preparation of the food. As BareKnuckles does not operate as a caterer, the team was not required to have a food license.
Likewise because Sherman's Last Burning was classified as a "fair or festival" no health permits were required though the event was permitted by the city of Covington.
After reviewing the procedures used in the preparation of the pulled pork, no mishandling or procedural issues could be identified by the Public Health Department as likely leading to the source of the contamination.
"While a review of BareKnuckles' procedures identified no issues, it is impossible to determine if temperatures were properly monitored and maintained during preparation and the festival," read the report.
As no hand washing facilities were available for the general public, the report also found that "inadequate hand washing facilities may have played a role in this outbreak."
Free said the Lions Club has taken the outbreak very seriously. In the report the Lions Club was thanked for their pro-activeness and cooperation in working with the Public Health Department throughout the investigation.
At the Lions Club request the East Metro Health District's Environmental Health Director gave a presentation at their monthly meeting on permitting and inspections for festival events. In addition Lions Club members, including Stancil, attended food safety training classes provided by the state and commercial trainers.
One of those trainings was held last Saturday. According to Free, approximately 20 Lions Club members attended.
"The Lions have been cooking barbecue for 35 years and have never had this problem before and don't plan on having it again and we'll do everything in our power to make sure it doesn't happen again," Free said.
The Lions Club has three main food events every year: a chili event in February, a barbecue chicken event in April and Sherman's Last Burning which takes place in October.
Free said Sherman's Last Burning will take place next year as planned. He said BareKnuckles, who also catered the event for the Lions in 2006, has chosen not to take part in the preparation of the barbecue next year. Free said he believed the Lions Club would contract with an independent vendor instead.
"The final decision has not yet been made but that's generally where we're headed," Free said.
Goins encouraged anyone thinking of holding a festival event in the future to make use of the services the Public Health Department offers such as advice on safe food preparation procedures.
"I think that that really speaks to the need for Public Health to be involved," Goins said. "We exist to serve and that's an area where maybe there's not enough emphasis on."