Jan Harding and her husband stopped at a Dickey's Barbecue Pit in South Jordan, Utah last Sunday for lunch. The 76-year-old grandmother filled her cup with sweet tea from the restaurant's self-serve drink station. After taking a drink, she immediately spit it out, telling her husband, "I think I just drank acid."
According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Harding apparently drank tea laced with a lye-based cleaner commonly used to degrease deep fryers. (Lye is also the active ingredient in most drain cleaners.) A store employee had confused the chemical with sugar, and mixed six cups of the powdered lye cleaner into the tea.
"It's disturbing that this kind of toxic, poisonous material would be in the food prep area and somehow find its way into the iced tea vat," Paxton Guymon, the Harding's lawyer, said in a statement Thursday. "I don't know how something like that can happen."
Harding's condition, Guymon said in the statement, has not improved since she was taken to the hospital Sunday. She is apparently unable to speak.
The restaurant has remained open since the incident, said Jeff Oaks, Food Protection Bureau manager at the Salt Lake County Health Department. His office inspected the establishment Monday and found all chemicals properly labeled and separated from food items.
The health department is awaiting results of the criminal investigation to determine if it should issue any violations. It's unlikely the restaurant would be fined or shut down, Oaks said. The department focuses on education and prevention over punitive measures, he said.
South Jordan Police Cpl. Sam Winkler told the Salt Lake Tribune that authorities are working with the restaurant's management—pulling security footage and interviewing employees—to figure out what happened. Winkler told the Associated Press that they believe the incident to have been an accident. Harding was the only victim, and apparently the first person to drink sweet tea at the restaurant that day; employees immediately poured the remaining chemical-laced tea out after.