Contractor serving National Guard at U.S. Capitol defends catering service

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The caterer contracted to feed thousands of National Guard troops providing security at the U.S. Capitol defended its food service Thursday, claiming that none of the cases of reported gastrointestinal illness among soldiers have been linked to the company.

"No cases of foodborne illness can be directly tied to this vendor," said Maria Stagliano, a spokeswoman for Sardi's Catering in College Park, Maryland. 

The response follows a Wednesday announcement by the National Guard that at least 50 service members have been sickened with gastrointestinal issues after complaints that they were served bad food while on duty guarding the Capitol.

A guard spokesman said 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. 

The Michigan National Guard has nearly 1,000 troops serving in Washington as part of the security mission, the largest state contingent, lawmakers say. Michigan soldiers and airmen have complained since mid-February about bad food they were served, ranging from undercooked meat to poor food quality to a lack of vegetarian options. 

"We are proud to serve our food to the National Guard troops who have deployed to Washington from around the U.S., and we stand by the quality and safety of the food we deliver to the National Guard troops," Sardi's said in a statement released Thursday.

"As a trusted provider of nutritious and safe meals for the National Guard, Sardi’s Catering adheres to our own rigorous standards for food safety and quality, and we are in full compliance with all standards and requirements in our National Guard Bureau contract as well as state and District requirements."

Sardi's in its statement suggested that the Michigan guard had sent up a lopsided number of complaints about the food, compared with other states' guardsmen. 

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.

"It is not clear why or how one particular state unit has recorded so many complaints, while there have been comparatively few complaints from other state units, according to the National Guard," Sardi's statement said.

"We are committed to providing exceptional service to all our meal recipients, and we will continue to work closely with the National Guard to address these concerns."

But Michigan troops aren't the only ones complaining, with soldiers from New Jersey and Illinois also reporting bad food, according to news reports.

Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey on Thursday asked Speaker Nancy Pelosi to investigate the reports of "tainted" food that sickened at least 30 guard members from his state.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is headed to Washington to visit the troops Friday. She raised concerns about the undercooked food starting in mid-February with the Acting Secretary of the Army John E. Whitley.

National Guard officials said this week they are working with the contractor to fix the issues but stressed the matter is limited to a small number of incidents and is not systemic. 

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

Michigan lawmakers in Washington and Lansing have called on the National Guard to fire the contractor, which was awarded an $11.4 million contract on Jan. 25 to provide meals to troops activated to help with security following the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.

Pelosi, who has registered her concerns three times with the National Guard about the issue, also agrees with ending the contract, spokesman Drew Hammill said.

"Obviously, this vendor should be discontinued. This is unacceptable," Hammill said. "There is no room for this sort of behavior from a vendor of any federally contracted agency."

Hammill noted that the Capitol police have offered their assistance to the National Guard by using their vendors for providing hot meals to the troops, but the guard declined that offer. 

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, called the situation "indefensible." "There is no excuse for treating these brave people who are putting their lives aside and their lives at risk to protect us, treating them like this is completely inexcusable," Kildee told Fox News. 

Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Holland, and 38 other lawmakers wrote to military leaders Thursday asking the guard to provide the service members with per diem for meals for the rest of their mission and retroactively. 

"Although these conditions have been widely reported and acknowledged by leadership at the National Guard, the situation does not appear to have been rectified and immediate action must be taken," the lawmakers wrote.

Once the troops are home, Huizenga said he hopes the National Guard's inspector general will investigate the matter.

“It’s one thing if the food's not spiced to your satisfaction, but we're talking about inedible food, and they have completely lost confidence in the food service," Huizenga told The Detroit News. 

"I don’t know how the catering group can justify this and say they are caught up in a proverbial food fight here, when clearly there’s evidence." 

State Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, highlighted a complaint that a Michigan soldier had posted about the Sardi's food in a Google restaurant review.

Sardi's posted a response to the soldier, stating in part that only a small group is complaining about the food and suggesting the guardsmen are unhappy because they'd prefer to have per diem to pay for their meals:

"We are aware the real reason your group is complaining and its a real shame. Its not fair we have been caught in the middle of this but understand you wanted money rather than food. We thank you for protecting and serving this great country and we will do our best to continue and feed everyone."

Barrett said,​ the response from Sardi's "basically tries to blame the troops and say that they're just trying to get money."

Asked about the company's posted response, Stagliano said, "Per diems are clearly an issue."

Sardi's was to provide a continental-style breakfast and two hot meals (lunch and dinner) for the troops through March 15, under the contract terms. 

The caterer was chosen over two other vendors (Mission BBQ and Office Catering) because the proposed pricing was approximately 16% less for lunch and dinner meals and about 27% less for breakfast meals, according to the contract records.

The company said that due to COVID-19 restrictions, it's required to pre-package individual meals at its facilities, rather than setting up a kitchen on site. It is currently providing 5,300 meals in bulk three times a day to the National Guard Armory in Washington, from which the guard then allocates the meals. 

Sardi's noted that National Guard inspectors are visiting its facilities and supporting kitchens regularly to conduct spot checks and ensure safe and sanitary food preparation and packaging in compliance with federal regulations. 

"Every delivery is inspected by an authorized representative of the National Guard and approved for distribution," Sardi's statement reads.

"We have very clear timestamps on all deliveries indicating the exact time the food is packaged and leaves our controlled environment, and we instruct the recipient to discard unused food after four hours. We have no further control over the meals after they have been dropped off to the National Guard’s Armory."

Members of the Michigan National Guard and the U.S. Capitol Police keep watch as heightened security remains in effect around the Capitol grounds since the Jan. 6 attacks by a mob of supporters of then-President Donald Trump, in Washington, Wednesday, March 3, 2021.

Sardi's stated it "deeply" appreciates and respects the troops who are participating in the security mission at the Capitol. 

"We are a trusted family business and an institution in the Washington area, with a spotless reputation for quality, service, and integrity," Sardi's said.

"The National Guard continues to closely monitor the quality and safety of meals provided to its personnel, and we are working closely with them to ensure our troops continue to have delicious and nutritious meals during their deployment to Washington."