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Food Poisoning on Campus

Posted in Our Blog,Outbreaks & Recalls on April 14, 2023

Student writer, Jack Thomas, of Transylvania University Campus’ The Rambler may have broken the case of mysterious illness on the Transylvania University campus in his Campus Life piece, “Food Poisoning Fiasco: Everything We know About Transy’s Culinary Calamity.” But the current lack of official health department investigation is troublesome.

From a fire-related emergency, to temporary kitchen closure and a potentially hidden Health Code Inspection report paired with students falling ill with “food poisoning,” Thomas points the finger at the The Great Hall, the university’s primary cafeteria. All of these events lead to student testimonials to foodborne illness that has not been investigated.

How Events Unraveled

According to Thomas, lunch at “The Caff,” more formally known as The Great Hall is served from 11:00am to 2:00pm. But on April 11, 2023, this was not the case. The service was postponed by a “fire-related emergency” and later cancelled completely. However, dinner and late-night service went on as scheduled.

Coincidently, this was also the day for the standard health code inspection. The facility had a previous score of 100, and according to the article, generally had a history of passing score. But that was not the case on this fated day. The Great Hall of Transylvania University received a score of 86.

An 86 may not sound all that bad, but when it comes to health code inspections, it indicates a borderline status. Scores of less than 85 warrant a process that could lead to the facility to be shut down.

According to Thomas, the suspicion was raised because “the inspection notice was covered up by a miscellaneous sign during dinner hours.” Did this happen by mistake, or was it a purposeful coverup?

Health Code Violations

The inspection report indicated several violations that contributed to the poor score.

Violations included:

  • Good Hygienic Practice
  • Protection from Contamination
  • Temperature Control for Safety
  • Utensils/Equipment
  • Physical Facilities

Soon after the report was visible, students began to talk. Some even began informally investigating.

The Student-Lead Investigation

Tate Ohmer, Transylvania University Class of ‘23 SGA President decided to dig deeper. The current Health Code rating was concerning. After talking with cafeteria staff, he discovered that a big component of the low score was “food contamination issues” related to aged storage units dating back to the previous facility providing meals in the 2018-2019 academic year. According to the facility manager, Chris Harris, the facility would be having a follow-up inspection in 10 days and claimed the current situation was “not a big deal.”

But is it a “big deal?”

Students who have fallen ill recently may have a different opinion.

Cases of Food Poisoning Rise on Campus

The author spoke with several students who gave their recent experiences.

Madalyn Stump, Class of ‘25 fell ill just the week before. She decided to go to the university hospital after becoming more and more sick. After several tests, she was no closer to an answer. “All of my tests came back negative,” said Stump. “But the doctor told me that there’s a chance the tests aren’t always accurate, that I could have food poisoning,” reports Stump.

The doctor indicated that “A few Transy [the affectionate name for the university] students came in [to the hospital] with food poisoning and bacteria in their stomach.”

After sharing this information with her peers, similar stories began coming in. Many had fallen sick. All were after eating food from the cafeteria.

Limited Options Leave Students Worried

Many students rely on the university cafeteria for most, if not all of their meals. “The only thing I eat is the food here at Transy because it’s all I can afford,” admitted Stump. She is not alone in this concern. Despite the risk, even worried students will have to continue dining at The Great Hall.

A Bigger Concern

Jack Thomas did a great job explaining the situation, providing supporting testimonials, and even sourcing an internal student body investigation. Student journalism at its finest!

But I am seeing a bigger concern.

Transylvania University is located in Lexington, Kentucky and within Fayette County. I have looked at the Fayette County Health Department website, the State of Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services website, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. While there are reports of a case of measles on the local pages, there is nothing about any foodborne outbreak on local, state, or national channels.

Parents Rely on Campus Safety

Parents send their children to these universities and sign them up for school food plans to make sure they are eating well. Many students rely on campus health for their health care needs, as it is often cost-effective and close by.

Are either of these two standards in campus life failing these students? Or both?

Outbreak Investigation

According to the CDC, and foodborne outbreak is defined as, “an incident in which two or more persons experience a similar illness resulting from the ingestion of a common food.”

Several students fell ill after eating at the university cafeteria. According to a student interview, her doctor indicated that several students had fallen ill with food poisoning.

Is a foodborne outbreak investigation taking place? It should be.

When someone falls ill with a foodborne illness, this information should be uploaded to a national database known as PulseNet. PulseNet takes the individual DNA fingerprint of patient samples obtained through Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) and compares it to other samples. When a group of people fall ill from bacteria with the same DNA fingerprint around the same time, it is called a “cluster” or possible outbreak. This prompts an investigation that will hopefully identify the source through patient interviews and traceback data. This helps public health authorities resolve unsafe practices or remove potentially harmful food from the market.

It is possible that an investigation is underway, as it can sometimes take a while for results to link cases in PulseNet. That is, IF the samples were submitted to PulseNet in the first place. Or, IF that is even a process that occurs on the university campus.

All identified cases of foodborne illness should be sampled and sent to PulseNet.