strike 3 you're not outta hereDespite differences in rules between the American and National leagues, three strikes means you’re out no matter who you are — rogue caterer Rick Stevenson is no doubt thankful those rules don’t seem to apply to him. In July, at least two dozen people got sick — three with confirmed Salmonella infections — at “the last” event catered by Stevenson. He’s been warned three times since 2012 that he needs to get a catering license and that he needs to follow food safety rules. He is currently delinquent on a $710 penalty fee assessed by the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. It is unlikely Stevenson, who operates as Mr. Rick’s Catering, will face any charges in a courtroom, unless they are civil counts filed by food poisoning victims. Spokespeople for the health department and the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s office said they don’t recall any occasions of enforcement actions being prosecuted. They also said they did not know of a mechanism to enforce the catering license requirement or shut down Stevenson’s operation. Pressed on the question of what the health department can do to stop bad actors such as Stevenson, spokeswoman Edie Jeffers said such questions are not “relevant” to the situation with Stevenson or the department’s mission and purpose. “It’s not about a punitive process, it’s about public health,” Jeffers said Thursday afternoon, “and public health is about transparency.” Jeffers said the health department’s act of publicly naming Stevenson and his business was a rare move and somewhat of a last resort option designed to have consumers shut down the caterer by not hiring him. hands tied photo illustration“Our powers are fairly limited,” Jeffers said. “We’re here to support businesses and help them provide safe food to the public. … Our hands are not tied. We are being transparent and informing the public.” James Lynch, a spokesman for the Pierce County Prosecutor’s office, said Friday that a law enforcement agency would have to provide the prosecutor with chargeable information before any court action could be pursued. He said it was not immediately clear if the health department constitutes a law enforcement agency. “I have not heard of a health department being involved in any cases in that way,” Lynch said. He said most of the attorneys in the prosecutor’s office were not available Friday to provide specific answers to questions such whether operating without a catering license and failing to pay a penalty fee are chargeable offenses. Where is Mr. Rick now? Stevenson has not responded to calls seeking comment on his business or the illnesses among guests at the July 2 wedding reception he admitted to catering out of a friend’s home kitchen. Thursday KCPQ-TV in Tacoma reported Stevenson said “he does not plan to get a permit because last month’s wedding was his last event.” About 175 people from across the state attended the event, which was in Snohomish County, according to spokeswomen with the Washington State Department of Health. They said the department is working with the event’s host, who has been very cooperative and has emailed food poisoning questionnaires to event guests. “We have 26 responses so far and 20 of them reported illnesses,” said Laurie Stewart of the state’s health department, adding that it is not known if the event host sent the survey to all 175 guests or only those who said they became ill. As for enforcement actions, the state health department is not involved in that aspect of situations such as the one involving Stevenson. Stewart and Beth Melius, another foodborne epidemiologist with the state department, said data from the survey of event guests would be analyzed and a final report would be generated. “I think the intervention factor has occurred with the actions of the county health department,” Stewart said Thursday. Mr. Rick’s recipe for Salmonella raw chicken leg on forkDuring investigation of the illnesses reported by guests of the July 2 event catered by Stevenson, environmental health specialist Christina Sherman and other staff from the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department interviewed the caterer. Stevenson told the health department he had used a barbecue grill and a kitchen in a friend’s rental house to cook the food for the July 2 event. The menu included chicken, pulled pork, pork ribs, baked beans, macaroni and cheese, Italian pasta salad, green salad and some beverages. Jeffers said the unlicensed caterer told investigators he had used the barbecue grill to partially cook the chicken and later took it into the rental house kitchen to finish preparing it. The investigators said it was apparent from Stevenson’s description of his food handling and preparation methods that he did not have adequate equipment to cook the food or keep it at proper temperatures once it was ready. All of the event guests who reported becoming ill said they ate the chicken served at the event. Enforcement efforts failed Tacoma-Pierce County health officials were not aware that Stevenson catered the July 2 event until after people began reporting illnesses, but they were aware that he was operating without a license, as he has done since at least 2012. Jeffers said the department had “become aware the caterer had resurfaced” recently. “When we hear about someone who has hired him we reach out and try to contact them to let them know he is not licensed,” she said, adding that the public can check to see if a caterer has a license at “We are complaint-driven,” Jeffers said Thursday. “We rely on people to report things like this when they see it. … People like him (Stevenson) who work under the radar market their businesses to people and if (the public) doesn’t ask to see their licenses they just keep going.” Jeffers said the department has warned Stevenson three times since 2012 that he needs to obtain a caterer’s license. She said the department’s policy is to work with food business owners to get them to learn and follow safe food-handling practices. Since Stevenson had been warned three times and still did not have a caterer’s license when he prepared and provided food for the July 2 event, the department issued a penalty “fee” of $710. Jeffers said such fees are rarely imposed. The $710 fee issued July 11 was due by Thursday. As of Thursday afternoon, Stevenson had not paid the fee, Jeffers said. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)