Officials seek source of Statehouse illness

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- State health officials are investigating whether tainted food sickened dozens of Statehouse employees, including some legislators, earlier this month.

But in a building where free food is plentiful, investigators are having a hard time tracing the source of the gastrointestinal problems reported by at least 61 people from March 13 to March 18.

No potential source -- from buffets and complimentary breakfasts to the Capitol cafeteria -- had been ruled out by Tuesday.

Free meals are regularly offered at the Capitol, where interns compare food spreads while riding the elevators and staffers chow down during committee meetings. Food lines form daily in hallways and offices during the legislative session, and the smell of Sterno heaters -- used to keep food warm -- routinely hangs in the air.

"There is a lot of food that goes through the Capitol. We are trying to sort through all of that," said Harvey Marx, who is in charge of the investigation for the state Department of Health and Senior Services.

Eighty-six people have been interviewed so far, and investigators were looking for others who might have fallen ill during the five-day span. People from both the House and Senate have reported symptoms.

During one of the days in question, the Capitol Rotunda was filled with the smell of omelets being cooked by the Department of Agriculture. In past weeks, the department has served several meals.

Lowell Mohler, director of the Agriculture Department, said his agency was not to blame.

"I didn't get sick," Mohler said. "Our staff would be sick. Food poisoning hits everybody."

He said the symptoms sound flu-like, and he suggested that children touring the building were the source.

"I've been around food poisoning before. It has different symptoms," Mohler said.

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