Possible food poisoning at SHSU may affect UH food contract

Ingrid Allstrom

Editor in Chief

Students at Sam Houston State University returned to campus Monday and to safe dining services after an outbreak of possible food poisoning left approximately 125 students ill and hospitalized before the break.

The students went to Huntsville Memorial Hospital and to the student health center between March 10 and 13, complaining of symptoms such as vomiting, stomach cramps and diarrhea, symptoms often associated with food poisoning.

On March 11, the hospital notified the Huntsville city health inspector of a possible outbreak. All the students who were hospitalized were released by noon on March 15.

No conclusive evidence has been presented yet that Aramark, the food service provider for both SHSU and the University of Houston, is at fault. The Department of Health and the Center for Disease Control are, along with Aramark, conducting an investigation into the cause.

No previous health inspections at SHSU have found serious problems with the food service, and the health department inspected all the dining facilities on campus and declared them safe Sunday.

The investigators are conducting interviews and taking lab cultures of food and water to determine the cause of the outbreak, and results should be available Thursday. All SHSU Aramark employees were tested for bacterial contamination, and all test results were negative.

Though the bacteria might be a type of E. coli, the lab workers believe that the germs are probably not E. coli 0157, the deadly type of E. coli that has received so much publicity recently.

The food service director at SHSU did say that they have chosen to "increase ... employee training in safety and sanitation to further ensure the safety of the food from the time of delivery to the time of service.

"We have instituted a process by which we test the food at various stages of production so that we can monitor its safety."

In order to insure the safety of the food, all opened containers were thrown out over spring break, he said.

Food poisoning can be caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites and can get into the food before or after it gets to the kitchen. Raw meat often has germs that could cause food poisoning, and occasionally plumbing problems can cause water to become contaminated. The best defense against transmitting germs through food is hand washing.

Spokesman for SHSU Frank Krystyniak said that, if the investigations do show that Aramark is responsible for the illness, the university will not take action against the company "unless they were negligent or refuse to pay damages."

Aramark's contract at UH will soon run out, and bidding has begun on a new contract. The last contract began in 1990 and has had six extensions. The last extension was approved in spring 1997. Aramark has been the food-service provider on this campus for more than 30 years.

The new contract will be for all UH campuses. On May 1, the system-wide committee will make a recommendation to Randy Harris, vice president/vice chancellor for administration and finance. He will make the recommendation to Chancellor Arthur K. Smith, who will then make the recommendation to the Board of Regents.

The new contract will begin in August 1998 for seven years with three one-year options for extension.

The committee chair, Vice President of Student Affairs Elwin Lee was not available to comment on whether the outcome of the food poisoning investigation will affect the committee's decision about awarding the contract.

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