50 National Guard troops sickened by food while guarding U.S. Capitol

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — At least 50 members of the National Guard have been sickened with gastrointestinal issues after complaints that service members were served bad food while guarding the U.S. Capitol in Washington, officials said.

Michigan lawmakers are calling on the military to fire the contractor involved — identified in federal records as Sardi's Catering in College Park, Maryland. 

Sardi's was awarded an $11.4 million contract by the District of Columbia National Guard on Jan. 25 to provide meals to troops activated to help with security following the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. Calls to Sardi's and the owner of the business Wednesday were not immediately returned. 

A guard spokesman said Wednesday that none of those sickened have been hospitalized due to illness from the food since the Capitol security mission began Jan. 6; however, some have been treated at hospitals. 

"Out of the 26,000 who were deployed and the 5,200 who remain, approximately 50 have been treated for gastrointestinal complaints," said Lt. Col. Robert Carver, a spokesman for the Joint Task Force that commands the Capitol security mission. 

Six of the service members were treated as outpatients at military treatment facilities, and others were handled at an aid station set up as part of the task force, Carver said.

Members of the Michigan National Guard providing security at the Capitol have complained about receiving meals in which  the meat was undercooked or contaminated with foreign material.

The figure of 50 people sickened is a change from Tuesday, when Carver said the National Guard's Joint Task Force was not aware of any reports of foodborne illness. Carver said Wednesday morning he has since received updated data.

"The National Guard continues to closely monitor the quality and safety of meals provided to its personnel," he said.

The Michigan National Guard has nearly 1,000 troops serving in Washington as part of the joint task force providing Capitol security. Their mission is set to end March 12.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has asked military officials to fix the food quality issues, plans to travel to Washington to visit Friday with the Michigan troops, a spokeswoman said.

"The governor has made it clear that she expected the U.S. Army to provide proper hotel accommodations and a per diem to ensure adequate and available meals," Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said.

Whitmer called Acting Secretary of the Army John E. Whitley about the food qualproblem two weeks ago on Feb. 17, following the first reports of bad food.

A representative of the Michigan guard told congressional staffers in a Tuesday briefing that 59 guard members from various states had reported gastrointestinal illness, including some who sought treatment at a hospital for diagnosis.

Members of the Michigan guard have complained since mid-February about some of the food they've been served while providing security at the U.S. Capitol, ranging from undercooked meat to poor food quality to a lack of vegetarian options. 

Members of the Michigan National Guard providing security at the Capitol have complained about receiving meals in which  the meat was undercooked or contaminated with foreign material.

Some of the service members, who often stand outdoors for shifts of up to 12 hours, have spent their own money to eat because they don't trust the food from the contractor, lawmakers said this week.

Records show that Sardi's Catering was to provide a continental-style breakfast and two hot meals (lunch and dinner) for the troops through March 15, under the contract terms. Sardi's was previously awarded a similar meal contract on Jan. 9 for nearly $1.39 million.

Sardi's was chosen over twoother vendors (Mission BBQ and Office Catering) because the proposed pricing was approximately 16% less for lunch and dinner meals and approximately 27% less for breakfast meals, according to the contract records.

One of the complaints from Michigan soldiers was that their breakfasts consisted of a piece of fruit and a hard roll without any protein. Hard-boiled eggs were added last week, officials said.

All 14 members of the Michigan House delegation signed a letter Tuesday to Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, chief of the National Guard. They want him to fire the food service contractor and find another vendor, or for service members to be paid a per diem for meals for their remaining time in Washington. 

"Michigan National Guard members stationed in our nation’s capital have repeatedly and personally brought these concerns directly to our offices and to the leadership of the National Guard. These reports include meals being provided that are badly undercooked, raw, moldy, and even filled with metal shavings," wrote the lawmakers, led by Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Holland.

"It is completely unacceptable that our men and women serving in Washington, D.C., are being hospitalized due to the food they are being provided."

Democratic Sen. Gary Peters, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, made a similar request for per diem for the service members in a Monday letter to Hokanson.  

The Michigan Senate adopted a resolution Wednesday calling on the National Guard to "immediately" end the food contract and provide a per diem food allowance backdated to the start of mobilization. The resolution was co-sponsored by 33 of the 36 Michigan senators.

“I have heard from many deployed fellow guardsmen, and each of them has reiterated the poor and unsafe quality of what they have been fed," said Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, who sponsored the measure.

"Our dedicated servicemen and servicewomen are stationed in the capital city of the greatest country in the world, to protect officials at the highest levels of government, but that government has failed to provide our troops with the most basic necessity of a healthy meal."

National Guard officials said this week they are working with contractors to fix the issues but said the matter is limited to a small number of incidents with undercooked catered meals. 

The guard has not pinpointed the problem to a particular food source, so it cannot say whether the issues are the fault of one caterer or an outside food source.

Carver said officials are visiting the caterer's place of business, spot-checking the meals, checking the cooking temperature and examining the kitchens for safety and cleanliness.

Less than 0.01% of 1.2 million meals provided from Jan. 6 through Feb. 18 appeared to be undercooked, he said.

The peak of the guard's presence at the Capitol was around President Joe Biden's inauguration when it was distributing 78,000 meals a day. Currently, that total is closer to 18,000 meals a day. Guard officials say that contracted food service is the most efficient way to feed that many people.

"Nobody has gone without sources of nutritious food," Carver said. "It's still a priority because the military has got to be able to ensure that its members are able to perform the mission and part and parcel of that is making sure they have nutritious food that gives them the fuel they need to actually do their duties."

mburke@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Craig Mauger contributed.