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Report shows Utah Dickey's had problem with food labels

Published August 20, 2014 7:03 am

Tea poisoning • South Jordan eatery had seven health code violations that month.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

During a routine inspection Jan. 21, the Dickey's Barbecue Pit in South Jordan — where a woman last week was seriously injured by drinking chemical-laced tea — was cited for seven health code violations, including one "non-critical" issue that involved a food container that was not properly labeled.

"Food containers are not labeled with the common name of the food," reads the 7-month-old inspection report on the Salt Lake County Health Department website. The record did not list what ingredient was in the unlabeled container.

Dickey's was cited for a second food-labeling problem Aug. 11, one day after a patron, 67-year-old Jan Harding, unknowingly drank sweetened iced tea laced with an industrial cleaning solution. Harding was rushed to a nearby hospital for severe burns to her mouth and throat.

Authorities have said the heavy-duty cleaner was unintentionally mixed into a bag of sugar, which a worker later added into the iced tea dispenser.

The incident demonstrates the need to be diligent about food-container labeling. The county health department gives restaurants this rationale when they are cited for the problem: "Bulk ingredients such as flour, sugar and salt that have been removed from their original containers must be labeled so they are not mistaken for similar looking ingredients and chemicals."

Despite the requirement, labeling problems occur often in restaurants, said Pam Davenport a spokeswoman for the health department.

"It's one of the most cited violations that we have," she said. "If you were to look at a range of different restaurants, it's one of the top violations."

However, since labeling is considered "non-critical" it doesn't get noticed much, Davenport said. "People haven't thought too much about it — until now."

A non-critical violation is one that, if not corrected, may lead to future problems in an establishment, while a critical violation poses an immediate risk to public health.

Prosecutors could decide as early as Wednesday whether to criminally charge Dickey's employees.

South Jordan police forwarded their findings Monday to Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill — including allegations that staff at Dickey's Barbecue discovered more than a month ago that a toxic chemical had been mixed with sugar.

Authorities have said an employee put the cleaner, not knowing what it was, in a container of sugar last month. A witness reported to investigators that a supervisor on July 5 dipped a finger in the odd-looking substance and tasted it; the supervisor then suffered chemical burns to the tongue, said South Jordan police Cpl. Sam Winkler.

Winkler said Monday there have been differing statements from many people about how exactly the chemical got into the sugar and then remained there for a month. The substance was mixed into the iced tea dispenser Aug. 10.

Harding suffered critical burns to her mouth and esophagus from drinking the tea. Her attorney has said she is improving and is regaining her ability to speak.

The cleaning product — used to remove grease from fryers, contains sodium hydroxide, or lye — is the active ingredient in drain cleaner.

Dickey's Barbecue Restaurants Inc. said in a statement last week that it was an isolated incident, and nothing like it had happened in the 73 years that the Dallas-based chain has operated.

kathys@sltrib.com