Search for salmonella focuses on stuffed hams More than 700 got sick from meal

November 08, 1997|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Peter Jensen contributed to this article.

CHAPTICO -- Like detectives on a case, health officials and investigators have been reviewing each moment of 38 hams' journey from slaughter to a church hall's buffet table, trying to find out how and where they became tainted.

State and local health officials have determined that the stuffed ham served at Sunday's dinner at Our Lady of the Wayside Church was the likely carrier of the salmonella poisoning that has sickened at least 702 people. Two people have died after eating food served at the dinner, although officials awaiting autopsy results have yet to tie those deaths directly to the tainted food.

"We've gone step by step through everything we did with those hams, from refrigerating them to stuffing them to cooking them," said Virginia Tennyson, owner of the Chaptico Market and one of five organizers of Sunday's dinner.

Tennyson guesses she has stuffed 2,000 hams in the 40 years she has supplied food to group dinners across St. Mary's County. She can't figure out what went terribly wrong this year.

"I'm a very meticulous person. Every one of us who stuffed the hams had on rubber Playtex gloves," she said. "I have no problem saying that I think we did everything right. But still, I've cried till I can't even cry anymore."

Tennyson and other parishioners have been interviewed to help trace the path of the hams. According to their accounts, and information from church and county officials, the journey began when Chaptico Market ordered 38 ham shoulders cured from corn-fed pigs.

'Reputable dealer'

A nearby farmer supplied and delivered them to the market, which has been in the same family for four generations. Health and church officials declined to name the supplier, but Tennyson said "they are a reputable dealer and we've dealt with them for 39 years."

The hams were delivered in a refrigerated truck down the road to Our Lady of the Wayside's parish hall, where 20 volunteers spent much of the day Oct. 30. stuffing the hams with kale, cabbage and spices, before wrapping them in cheesecloth.

Tennyson said it took at least 25 minutes for a person to stuff each ham.

The hams ranged from 23 to 25 pounds. They were taken to the Seafood Corner market in nearby Mechanicsville, where they were boiled in vats for five hours.

The hams were returned to Chaptico Market, where they were sliced and refrigerated and delivered to the church hall on Nov. 1.

More than 1,400 bellied up to the buffet table Sunday, helping themselves to turkey, potatoes and the ham. They ate with stainless steel utensils off disposable plates and washed it all down with iced tea and coffee. Church volunteers say they kept small plates of ham out at a time, and refilled the plates every five to 10 minutes with ham from the refrigerator.

Somewhere in that journey, precautions that ensured safe and uneventful dinners in each of the past 38 or more years broke down.

With help from federal investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration, St. Mary's County health officials are trying to determine whether the tainted food was caused by under-cooking, a lack of refrigeration, unsanitary hands or utensils, or some other source.

"Like following someone from birth to death, we have to know how that stuffed ham existed," said Martin L. Sanders, a state health department epidemiologist assigned to the St. Mary's outbreak. "There's always some critical point where food can go awry."

At the same time, officials have been looking in the mirror, seeking answers to how the county can prevent such outbreaks. Dr. Ebenezer Israel, who became St. Mary's county's health officer in March, said such church dinners have gone largely unregulated in the county for decades, but that his department may now set higher safety standards.

Close scrutiny

"These types of dinners have been going on for years," Israel said. "What we are looking at now is: what can we do to change things and make sure these functions are safe? To make sure these places are safe for people to eat."

Unlike restaurants, most non-profit organizations need not be licensed to serve meals, but they must adhere to minimum sanitary requirements set by the state. For instance, a facility's refrigerators must be cold enough to keep microorganisms from multiplying and its premises clear of litter or rubbish.

"They must adhere to food preparation standards of a restaurant," said Richard J. Kropka, chief of food control for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Yesterday, health officers visited three other churches that were preparing for their fall fund-raising dinners this weekend, to ensure that proper food-safety techniques were practiced. And the county health department plans to create a food-safety training program for the churches, fire departments and civic organizations that raise funds through such dinners.

Meanwhile, Virginia Tennyson continued to search her recollections for a clue to the mystery of the ham. Sympathetic neighbors and friends continued to send her flowers and telephone her to offer moral support.

"We're all upset by this. I love my church and my fellow parishioners. We want to know what happened, too," said Tennyson, whose husband and five sons were among the 150 church volunteers who assisted with the dinner.

"We all worked together, and we all want to find this thing out together. I prayed so many rosaries I feel like I'm caught up for the next two years."

But when the dust settles, Tennyson also hopes that stricter regulations will help prevent a repeat of the terrible week her county has suffered.

"This is going to be a wake-up call for all of us in this area. We're going to have to learn how to do things differently," she said. "But I guess we'll be talking about this one for years and years. And that's a shame."

Pub Date: 11/08/97

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