Waterloo region (Ontario) students might have foodborne illness after competition

I used to be an even bigger nerd than I currently am. Spending my time focusing on food safety might be considered by some as sexy (the food pornographers) but while in high school I was into a much weirder and unhip hobby — I built robots. It’s not like I hung out alone in the basement messing around with motors and gears; I built robots on my high school robotics team (I hope that makes it a bit cooler). A couple of us even coined a somewhat embarrassing team name, Team PHYRE (PHYRE stands for Port Hope young robotics engineers).

The robot building wasn’t entirely aimless, we competed against other nerds in an annual national competition, Canada First. Each participating high school was provided with a few materials and tasked with creating a remote control contraption that would be used to play a game against other teams. The game varied from year-to-year but usually involved collecting/shooting/storing and moving balls or pucks into a goal. Fun stuff. We had 8 weeks to build the robot, but the competition weekend was the big pay-off. A bunch of senior high school students staying in a hotel and getting into various levels of trouble. The most embarrassing part of the story is that the competition weekends still rank high on my list of most memorable experiences.

In a related story, a group of Waterloo region (Ontario) students probably had a memorable extracurricular event weekend recently — but for more barfblog-worthy reasons. Twenty-five students and two teachers attending DECA, an extracurricular program that gives students hands-on experience in marketing and business, reported symptoms consistient with foodborne illness after the comptetion.

The students stayed at the Toronto Sheraton Hotel in the city’s downtown, where the competition was held.
“We’re still in the early fact-finding mode,” said Brenda Miller, the region’s manager of health protection and investigation.
Public health began investigating on Wednesday (February 11) and has contacted both school boards to find out which schools sent students to the competition and if they have a surge in absenteeism.
One possibility being looked into is the hotel restaurant where many students ate, although Miller stressed there are other potential sources that must be investigated.
“It could be norovirus, but at this point it’s too early to tell,” Miller said.

While there were definitely illnesses associated with the robotics competitions, I’m pretty sure foodborne illness wasn’t a likely cause.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.