News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

October 26, 2013

Suspect cornbread sent for analysis

Sample to be tested in incident that sickened 11 people, 1 dog

BRAZIL — A store-bought mix for cornbread doesn’t have illegal drugs listed as an ingredient on its box, but the Clay County Sheriff’s Department is now investigating whether a pan of cornbread shared among vendors at a pitch-in meal could have been spiked.

Chief Deputy Rob Gambill told the Tribune-Star on Friday that a sample of the cornbread — which recently sickened 11 people — will be submitted Monday to the Indiana State Police laboratory for testing.

“We originally thought the local health department would help us with testing, but since the cornbread was not sold to the public, they declined to do the testing,” Gambill said.

“We have now asked the state police to help with the testing. We want to see if it had anything added to it,” Gambill said.

The illness incident occurred during the Covered Bridge Festival at a flea market-type location at Hendrix Street and Indiana 59 on the north side of Brazil — an intersection that receives a lot of traffic during the bridge festival.

Gambill said that many of the vendors have known each other for years, and it is common for them to share meals. During one pitch-in gathering, several people reported symptoms of dizziness, grogginess, and one person passed out. Emergency personnel were called to the scene to check for a possible natural gas leak or some other cause of the mass illness, Gambill said, but the common denominator turned out to be a pan of cornbread shared by all of those who became ill.

The illness did not mimic food poisoning, he said, because it occurred within 10 minutes of the cornbread being eaten, and the people did not experience vomiting or diarrhea.

“We started asking what they had eaten, and all who got sick had eaten that cornbread. There was one person who didn’t like the taste and fed it to a dog, and that dog got sick too,” Gambill said.

All of those who fell ill have since recovered, he said. Some went to area hospitals, and others have followed up with their physicians. The people were mostly in their 50s and 60s, he said, and are not thought to be the type of people who would add anything to food to affect another person’s physical status.

“This is not the type of crowd of which I’d suspect anything,” he said.

Gambill said he did drug investigations for several years, and the reactions he saw in the 11 people who became ill are not typical of those who abuse drugs, or of a reaction to any common drugs that might be used to spike food or drinks.

Those who reported to the hospital were tested for drugs to see if a common factor was found, Gambill said, but no drugs showed up in the results to indicate the cornbread was spiked with opiates, marijuana, methamphetamine or other prescription medication.

“Just because nothing came back positive doesn’t mean there’s nothing in it,” Gambill noted, and that is the reason that a sample of the cornbread has been preserved for testing.

The pan used to bake the cornbread, as well as the mixing bowl and eggshells have all been preserved for additional testing if needed, he said.

Because of the emergency response to the scene, and the public knowledge of the incident in the community, Gambill said the police have tried to keep the public informed about the outcome, and to dispel rumors.

“It’s something we probably typically wouldn’t be getting involved in, but when we responded and people were getting sick, we wanted people to know what was going on,” he said.

The person who made and provided the cornbread has been cooperative with the investigation, he said.

“Fortunately, nobody died from this, so it’s not like there is a rush for the testing,” Gambill said. “If it does turn out to be something wrong with the cornbread mix, we will contact the manufacturer.”

All of the people who experienced illness have since recovered, he said, including the dog.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@trib star.com.

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