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Utah woman critical after drinking restaurant's tainted tea

By Jennifer Dobner

SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - A Utah woman was in critical condition in hospital on Friday, five days after suffering burns to her mouth and esophagus from drinking sweet tea laced with a powerful lye-based cleaning solvent at a local restaurant.

Jan Harding was dining with relatives at a Dickey's Barbecue Pit in the Salt Lake City suburb of South Jordan on Sunday when she poured herself tea from a self-service beverage dispenser. Her mouth began burning after just one sip, South Jordan Police spokesman Sam Winkler said. 

"She did not swallow it. The second it hit her mouth, the burning was so intense, she spat it out," Winkler said.

Harding's husband rushed to her a nearby hospital, which transferred her to the University of Utah Hospital burn unit where she was listed in critical condition, Winkler said.

An attorney for the Harding family, Paxton Guymon, has told local media that tests show the retired school teacher suffered ulcerated burns on her upper esophagus and may need surgery. Guymon did not return calls for comment Friday.

It wasn't immediately clear how the white cleaning powder, which is made primarily from sodium hydroxide, got into the serving container for the tea, although police initially suggested that an employee may have mistaken the white, powdery substance for sugar. 

"We believe it is accidental," Winkler said. "But we're still investigating it as a criminal matter."

The findings of the police investigation are expected to be released on Monday, he added. Police are also working with the Salt Lake County Health Department to identify any health code violations at the restaurant. 

In a statement released through its corporate offices in Texas, Dickey's said safety is a priority for both workers and guests at all its franchise restaurants. 

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to our guest and her family," the company said. "At this time we are fully involved in cooperating with all parties. Out of respect for the privacy of our guest and her family, we will reserve further remarks for the time being."

(Reporting by Jennifer Dobner; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Eric Walsh)

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