Georgetown, USC, now Vermont; students are barfing everywhere; no answer from Organic To Go

Susan Schoenfeld, the Vermont Health Department’s deputy epidemiologist, said state and UVM health officials were looking into the possibility that some of the students sickened by the virus got sick shortly after eating a meal at the University Marche, a dining center inside the school’s Living & Learning Center.

“Several of the students who had just eaten a meal at the dining hall became ill,” she said. “We’ve told the university we can’t rule out the possibility that food was related to the outbreak, in addition to person-to-person transmission.”

To date, about 60 students have reported becoming sick with gastroenteritis symptoms over the past few days, but the outbreak now appears to be in decline. Only four new cases of the illness were reported Thursday, according to a UVM memo to the campus community.

The memo also discussed the possible connection of the dining hall to the outbreak and said there was no way to confirm if food in the eatery caused anyone to become sick. The memo said it was possible someone who was sick possibly contaminated otherwise high-quality food.”

High quality? OK, so I’m sure the providers of food to UVM students are concerned about the things that make people barf, and wouldn’t be taken in by some trendy, local, natural thing, at least without asking basic questions about microbial food safety such as irrigation water quality, soil amendments and employee handwashing. 

But I asked the same questions of Organic To Go and have heard nothing.

Organic To Go gone from Georgetown

The Hoya reports that Georgetown University has ended its relationship with Organic To Go as the source of a norovirus outbreak that sickened at least 212 and was linked to Leo O’Donovan Hall continues to be investigated.

University spokesperson Julie Bataille said,

“When we reopened [O’Donovan Hall], we proactively agreed with the Department of Health to do so preparing our own Grab ‘n’ Go items as there was enough reason to suspect a potential link between those items and the virus on campus.”

The Hoya says that Organic To Go was introduced as an environmentally friendly choice and as part of the larger renovations to improve food options at the dining hall this fall.

Stephanie Sampiere, vice president of corporate communications at Organic To Go, said the company is no longer serving Georgetown, but maintained that Organic To Go could not have been the cause of the norovirus outbreak.

“All Organic To Go food is prepared in a central commissary kitchen, and the company served thousands of customers’ food prepared from the commissary kitchen that day and received absolutely no concern in regards to Organic To Go’s food.”

That’s the same Stephanie Sampiere who was quick off the mark when I published an entry about a possible link between norovirus outbreaks at Georgetown and the University of Southern California earlier this month, e-mailing me to remove the blog post.

I told her to post a comment, she persisted, so I added a line about how Organic To Go had stopped serving USC in Aug. 2008.

And I sent Stephanie another message:

“I added a note. But you’ve piqued my interest and I can’t find anything on your website.

So I’d like some information on the microbial standards for all fresh fruits and vegetables used by Organic-to-Go, where grab-and-go food is prepared and the training requirements for those assembling and serving food.

Stephanie wrote that she would try and track down that information.

I’m still waiting.

Food service is under tremendous pressure to go local, organic and sustainable, whatever those words mean. But the basics are the same: any supplier needs to substantively prove they are providing microbiologically safe product.