FOX Carolina Investigates a deadly dinner in Greenwood

When it comes to making sure your food is safe a new agency is taking over regulations.
Published: Nov. 15, 2023 at 6:39 PM EST
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GREENWOOD, S.C. (FOX Carolina) - A new agency will soon be in charge of making sure your food is safe.

So FOX Carolina Investigates is looking at how inspections can improve because -- as one Upstate family found out -- they can be the difference between life and death.

Sept. 19, 2020

On September 19, 2020, John Laughlin picked up food from International Café in Greenwood, according to a lawsuit. Laughlin ordered fried rice and chicken wings for him, his wife and sister-in-law to share.

Hours later, all three were sick.

The next day, Laughlin was dead.

We filed a Freedom of Information Act request and uncovered that 19 complaints were filed with the state about International Café and customers getting sick.

The first was filed on March 29, 2020, and another in August 2020.

Then, in September 2020, 15 were filed, including nine on September 19, the same day Laughlin ordered from the restaurant.

According to a lawsuit filed by Laughlin’s wife against International Café, the rice Laughlin ordered had “been left sitting at room temperature for far too long and was contaminated with a bacteria” that can cause food poisoning.

Earlier this year, International Café settled the lawsuit for $825,000.

“We hope no one else will lose a loved one due to the failure to follow basic food procedures,” said Tombo Hite and Heather Hite Stone, Laughlin’s attorneys, in a statement.

We reached out to the attorneys who represented International Café in the lawsuit. Richard Simmons II, who worked the case, said they are pleased a settlement was reached.

“This settlement is fair for all the parties involved and satisfactorily resolves this matter,” Simmons said. “We wish the Laughlin Family all the best in the future.”

However, inspections from the Department of Health and Environmental Control show there were more issues at International Café.

In June 2022, another person reported getting sick after eating there. The following day DHEC inspected and found handwashing violations. Still, the restaurant got an A grade.

In April this year, another person reported getting sick, DHEC inspected and found managers lacked proper certification for handling food. They also noted issues with handwashing, citing it as a repeated violation.

Again, the restaurant got an A that stayed in place until they permanently closed in September, according to business filings.

On July 1, 2024, the South Carolina Department of Agriculture will take over food safety, which includes restaurant inspections.

“There’s a lot policies and practices and standard operating procedures that we’re going to address to try to make some of the decision making at the frontline level as opposed to having to go up the chain so to speak,” said Derek Underwood, the assistant commissioner for consumer protection with SCDA.

We asked Underwood if the department would be changing grading guidelines and implementing stricter penalties.

Underwood said they can’t comment on that yet but told us they’ll be taking a look at giving inspectors more power in the field.

“We’ll have a lot of policies and procedures in place that will assist our food safety officers in the field to be able to make determinations and take actions that now it might take a little bit longer to go through the chain of command of the process,” Underwood said.