UDS pulls spinach from University dining areas due to E. coli outbreak

by Vadim Lavrusik

University Dining Services stopped serving spinach Sept. 15 because of an outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 found in bagged spinach throughout the country.

The news of the contaminated spinach was released Sept. 14 by the Food and Drug Administration, and producers began to recall products containing spinach soon after.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokeswoman Christine Pearson, there have been 157 reports of people infected and one death from 23 states, as of 1 p.m. Thursday. Two of the cases were reported in Minnesota.

Reports of people infected are continuing to come in and the FDA has not yet determined the source of the food-borne illness.

Karen Devet, director of UDS, decided to remove products containing spinach as soon as the news broke.

Devet said that although she had not yet received an order to recall the product from the distributor, the decision was made out of concern for students’ health.

There have been no reports of University students becoming infected with the illness, she said.

“This sort of thing doesn’t happen frequently, where we have to recall a product like this,” Devet said.

E. coli is a bacterium that causes food-borne illness. Although the bacterium exists in the intestines of animals and humans, this particular strain creates a strong toxin in the intestines of humans, which often results in bloody diarrhea and severe abdominal pain.

Kathy Brandt, regional extension educator in food science, said E. coli can lead to liver damage and in some cases death.

Brandt, who is an expert in food safety, said a similar outbreak occurred earlier this year with bagged lettuce, in which the product was recalled as well.

She said that although the source of this outbreak is still under investigation, in a previous case with lettuce earlier this year, it was found that the source came from water that was contaminated in California.

“(The producers) had heavier rains and the drainage ditches flooded, and that is at the point at which E. coli was picked up from the pasture of wildlife because the wildlife most likely came in contact with the water being used to irrigate the crop,” she said. “It is a trickle-down effect.”

Brandt said she thinks the FDA and CDC have responded very well to the concern.

However, Brandt said, the inspection of the product needs to become more persistent, even though most producers follow strict guidelines.

“We have tremendously safe food supply here in the U.S., but there can always be improvements in the food process,” she said.

First-year student Becky Baker had to make the transition from spinach salad to regular salad.

Baker said she is disappointed that something like this could happen, and that there was no inspection of the product before it was shipped out to detect the bacteria before anyone gets sick. However, Baker said, sometimes these things are not preventable.

She said she will eat spinach again as soon as the FDA says it is safe.

“Students need to be notified of the symptoms so that people can be on alert in case they are ill,” she said. “I don’t think everyone knows about it yet.”

Neuroscience junior James Wiltbank said he didn’t know about the outbreak.

“I don’t eat spinach, so it doesn’t affect me,” he said.

Wiltbank said people probably will not eat spinach for a couple of years in fear of becoming ill, even if it is cleared by the authorities.

“But after a while there is a cultural amnesia about these things and people forget,” he said.