Ingle's fire draws interest of TDA

By Thomas Wilson
star staff

  The Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA) has taken an interest in the potential effects smoke could have had on perishable food items located in the Ingle's grocery store on West Elk Avenue after a fire occurred in the store Sunday night.
  John Sanford, food manufacturing administrator with the food and dairy section of TDA, told the Star on Tuesday that department officials were unaware of the fire until the newspaper contacted them. Sanford said an inspector contacted store officials shortly after the TDA was made aware of the incident. He said an agriculture inspector would examine all perishable items such as meats, produce, and other foodstuffs possibly exposed to smoke during the fire.
  "Anything deemed to be unwholesome or unfit for human consumption we would condemn," said Sanford. "Any chemical residue on the inside or outside of any packaging, we would condemn that product also."
  The TDA regulates food and dairy quality for supermarkets across the state. Sanford said state officials looked for damage to produce or if packaging of any perishable food was comprised by smoke or water damage when the fire was extinguished. The inspector's evaluation of damage could result in food items being condemned and thrown out.
  Elizabethton police and fire officials are continuing to investigate the cause of the fire that started in the paper products aisle of the grocery store shortly before 9 p.m. Sunday. There were no injuries reported, according to Elizabethton Police Department officers on the scene.
  Employees and customers were evacuated from the building due to the large amount of smoke that permeated the building. Witnesses said Sunday night that they saw flames and smoke in the paper products aisle prior to hearing the fire alarm sound.
  Ingle's store manager Jeff Jackson told the Star on Tuesday that the store lost roughly $15,000 in merchandise as a result of the fire. Jackson told a Star reporter that health inspectors had been at the store, but he did not identify the agency or entity represented by the inspectors.
  Sanford said he did not know how quickly a state inspector would be at the Elizabethton store but did say the response "would be as rapid as practical". He said smoke damage to canned or metal sealed items did not endanger the content.
  "Smoke damage on the outside of cans does not constitute a public health threat," said Sanford. "In most instances it would be more a wholesomeness or quality issue surrounding a fire than a public health issue."
  Sanford said the state contacted the Elizabethton store soon after learning of the fire on Tuesday. He said as of Tuesday afternoon no one from Ingle's had notified the department regarding the fire. He said the department anticipated receiving notice from a grocery store damaged by fire to give TDA representatives an opportunity to help businesses inspect perishable items.
  "We would hope that we could offer them assistance in going through on those food products," said Stanford.
  Elizabethton Fire Chief Michael Shouse said Tuesday arson was suspected in the blaze and the incident remained under investigation. Shouse said the fire was extinguished with a combination of sprinkler system and fire department water lines.
  Attempts to contact representatives at Ingle's corporate headquarters in Asheville, N.C., for comment were unsuccessful.
  Beth Rader of the state's Regional Health office said Wednesday that the health department had no regulatory authority regarding the effects smoke might have had on perishable items in the store.