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Spinach Scare Sweeps Campus

By Kaela Heaslip
On September 29, 2006

  • Spinach, usually served between these two lettuce baskets at Northwest Dining Hall, has been suspended because of the E. coli scare. Amanda Spinelli

O157:H7 is a strain of E. coli that has infected fresh spinach in three California counties and is causing a stir nationwide as to what leafy greens are safe to eat as many Americans empty their fridges and shun spinach in any form.

At UConn, things are not much different. Before the E. coli outbreak fresh spinach was served in salad bars and in recipes at the eight dining halls around campus. According to Dennis Pierce, director of dining services, spinach is no longer being served at any dining hall on campus.

"On day one of the spinach outbreak, before the dining units were even opened we heard about the problem from our vendors and immediately pulled all fresh spinach from the dining units," Pierce said.

Although some students have reported still seeing fresh spinach in dining units, Pierce said what they are actually seeing is kale, a leafy vegetable that looks a lot like spinach, but is not dangerous to eat.

The state of Connecticut accounted for only three of the 183 illnesses reported nationally due to spinach containing E. coli as of Sept. 26. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) there has only been one death, in Wisconsin, which is the state with the most reported cases of E. coli. A 77-year-old woman died there on Sept. 14.

The FDA described the symptoms of the E. coli infection as diarrhea, often with bloody stools. Although most healthy adults can recover within a week, some people can develop a form of kidney failure called hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS). HUS can lead to serious kidney damage and death.

Pierce said the university dining halls have never had an instance of food poisoning. In fact, Pierce says that while the state mandates that one person on every shift be "Servsafe Certified" (a five day training session that ends with a test), UConn mandates that every worker be Servsafe Certified.

"We are serving 1,200,000 meals a week and our track record shows that we are keeping everyone safe," Pierce said.

According to Regis Synnott, executive purchasing assistant for dining services, the brands of spinach that dining services usually distributes are Freshpoint and Fresh Express, which have been identified by the FDA as being at risk for E. coli. In a typical week before the E. coli outbreak, Synnott said dining services would buy and serve over 228 cases of spinach in a week.

"However, don't expect to see any fresh spinach in the dining halls until the FDA approves it to be safe," Synnott said.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) advises consumers to stay away from fresh spinach grown in the problem areas in California which include Monterey County, San Benito County, and Santa Clara County. Frozen and canned spinach can be safely eaten from anywhere, the CDC said.

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