A wedding reception at which half of the 200 guests wind up clutching their stomachs and throwing up — with 22 hospitalized — sounds like either a horror movie or a bad family legend. Sadly, it was reality for Syracuse, N.Y., couple Melissa Conarton and Jesse Abbott in July 2015, and now they’ve decided to sue the caterer they think caused the whole messy scene. The caterer, understandably, denies any wrongdoing.
“It was like the apocalypse,” Conarton told Syracuse.com. “People vomiting, having diarrhea, and fainting on the lawn and in the parking lot. … Ambulances came, and then they had to call for more ambulances.”
The reception, which took place two weeks after the couple’s small private church ceremony, was held at Arrowhead Lodge in the Oneida Shores Park in Brewerton, N.Y. Some guests who had come to help set up brought a platter of cheese and pepperoni from a grocery store, the bride said. Then Holy Smoke BBQ and Catering arrived to serve pulled pork, herb-marinated chicken, beans, rice, grilled vegetables, coleslaw, and macaroni and cheese. The party started between 3 and 4 p.m., and by 6:30 the first guests began to get sick.
The state health department immediately investigated the incident, and that October the department reported that about 35 people had suffered from staph aureus enterotoxin infection, caused by Staphylococcus aureus. According to the CDC, the bacteria can be found in unpasteurized milk and cheese products and can be spread when people preparing food don’t wash their hands. The toxins are resistant to salt and heat, but the highest risk of transmission is in foods such as sliced meats and sandwiches that are not cooked after handling. The investigation could not conclude the source of the bacteria.
Doug Tarpinian, the owner of Holy Smoke BBQ, does not believe it came from his company.
“We were under investigation for six months,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “They confiscated my food the next day that we had left over from that wedding and nothing came back contaminated.”
Conarton and Abbott told Good Morning America this week that they decided to sue in order to reimburse their guests for their medical expenses. Their lawsuit blames the illness specifically on the macaroni and cheese Tarpinian served.
“It’s so difficult to see not only your friends and closest family, but when you see young children, too, going through this experience. It was terrible,” Abbott told GMA.
Tarpinian, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, prepared and served the food that day, along with his wife and an employee. He says they follow proper food safety guidelines and checked the temperatures of their food as they always do.
“When we pulled in for their wedding at Arrowhead Park, they had a table full of appetizers, cheeses, salamis, all kinds of stuff, and we don’t know who provided the food, who was handling that food when we got there,” he says. “One of her guests could have touched the tongs, and everybody [in line] behind there could have it.”
“And they provided their own bartenders — we don’t know who they are. … There are so many loose holes here,” he added.
Still, when the incident occurred, he didn’t make Conarton and Abbott pay the remainder of their balance. “We felt really terrible for what happened, so we just let it go.”
When he was served with papers for the lawsuit two months ago, Tarpinian consulted a lawyer, who advised him to countersue for the amount the couple still owed him for the wedding.
Holy Smoke has catered about 200 weddings since Conarton and Abbott’s, and Tarpinian says he has had no other incidents of food poisoning in his 10 years in business. But now that this story has gone national, his business is suffering. Two people have already called to cancel weddings they had booked. He fears that this story will bankrupt him.
“When [tests] came back inconclusive, that we had no part in anything, how could you still bash me on TV when nobody knows where it came from?” he tells Yahoo. “We wish we knew where it came from. We feel horrible for their day. Their day was ruined. Our day was ruined. Now my business is ruined.”
We’ve reached out to the couple for comment and will update when we hear back.
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