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Unlicensed Pierce County caterer exposes dozens to salmonella, officials say

Rick Stevenson told health inspectors he used the kitchen in a buddy’s rental house in Snohomish County to cook chicken, along with other fixings, for an event nearby in early July.

But officials say Stevenson, who runs the unlicensed Mr. Rick’s Catering out of a Tacoma home, failed to cook the chicken through and sickened several people with salmonella.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department had contacted Stevenson multiple times since 2012 telling him to shut down his business. After the Snohomish County incident, the department fined him $710 for continuing to operate without a permit.

Department spokeswoman Edie Jeffers said Wednesday that the state Department of Health is leading the investigation into the food poisoning because the people who attended the event came from throughout Washington.

State spokeswoman Julie Graham said the state has confirmed three cases of salmonella from the July 2 event, which about 175 people attended. At least a dozen more responded to a survey of attendees, saying they also were sickened.

Symptoms of salmonella include diarrhea, fever, chills, dehydration and abdominal pain.

At the event, Stevenson served chicken, pulled pork, pork ribs, baked beans, macaroni and cheese, Italian pasta salad, green salad and some beverages, according to Christina Sherman, an environmental health specialist for the county health department.

From discussing his processes with him, we could see that he didn’t have enough equipment to prepare all of this food safely and didn’t have enough equipment to keep it warm once it was prepared.

Christina Sherman, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department

He used a barbecue and a kitchen oven at his friend’s rental house to do the cooking, Sherman said.

Stevenson told investigators he partially cooked the chicken on the barbecue, then took it inside, chopped it up and put it in the oven to finish cooking.

“From discussing his processes with him, we could see that he didn’t have enough equipment to prepare all of this food safely and didn’t have enough equipment to keep it warm once it was prepared,” Sherman said.

Investigators were not able to obtain samples of the food from the gathering, but because the people who got sick all ate the chicken and the cooking process for the chicken was unsafe, Sherman is “pretty certain that’s where the salmonella came from.”

Stevenson has a foodhandler’s permit but doesn’t have a caterer’s license that requires approved kitchen facilities. He did not respond to a phone message seeking comment.

Sherman said the county Health Department gets three or four cases a year of caterers operating without a permit. Jeffers says it’s “fairly unusual” for fines to be issued. Offenders are first given a written warning, allowing the department to work with people to get them to follow safe foodhandling procedures.

Nine warnings were issued in the past six months, Jeffers said.

“The good news is that most people come around when we give that warning,” she said. “There isn’t a fee involved. We just work with them to get everything in order so they can serve food safely.”

People can check to see if a caterer has a license at tpchd.org/caterers.

Kenny Ocker: 253-597-8627, @KennyOcker

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