Dining halls ready to bring back spinach

Spinach will be back in Yale’s dining halls next week, but some students said they may never again look at their leafy vegetables in the same light.

University Dining Services pulled spinach from its menus two weeks ago following a federal government warning that an E. coli outbreak affecting about 190 people nationwide may have been caused by contaminated spinach. But now that the warning has been lifted, spinach will again be available from Yale’s supplier beginning Oct. 9, and it will be reintroduced into campus dining rooms shortly thereafter, Dining Services Executive Director Don McQuarrie said Tuesday.

While outbreaks of E. coli bacteria are not exceedingly rare, Dining Services is concerned that the spinach recall could cause students to have doubts about the safety of consuming dining hall vegetables in the future.

“You have a consumer confidence issue,” McQuarrie said. “It’s a question we struggle with internally. Is the confidence there that would allow us to reintroduce the spinach? I would hope that it will be there.”

Dining Services will post information next week in each residential college to reassure students that the spinach served in dining halls is safe to eat, McQuarrie said.

The tainted spinach has been traced back to Natural Selection Foods LLC in San Juan Bautista, Calif., according to the Food and Drug Administration Web site. The FDA still warns against consuming spinach processed by the California company, which has recalled all of its spinach dated Oct. 1 or earlier.

But spinach from elsewhere should be safe, the FDA said in a statement. McQuarrie said all of the University’s spinach was returned to its distributor after the initial FDA warning and that he does not know if any of it originated from the California company.

“Spinach on the shelves is as safe as it was before this event,” said David Acheson, chief medical officer for the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in a conference call with reporters on Friday.

During the outbreak, 187 cases of illness from E. coli were reported, resulting in 97 hospitalizations and 1 death, the FDA said. Three of the cases were in Connecticut, the agency said.

The E. coli bacteria, which lives in the intestines of healthy cattle, infects about 73,000 people in the United States every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control Web site. While the bacteria can cause bloody diarrhea, cramps and, in the most severe cases, kidney failure, most people infected with the disease recover fully without any specific treatment in 5-10 days, the CDC said.

While many students said they had never before looked at their salads with any degree of suspicion, some said that will change once spinach returns to University dining halls.

Grant Potter ’10, an avid spinach eater, said he missed having spinach available at the salad bar but is not sure how regularly he will eat it when it returns.

“I felt wrong eating salad without spinach,” he said. “But now I’m wondering if I have to choose between forgoing spinach or contracting E. coli.”

But other students said they are unfazed by the recall.

Sara Freiberg ’09 said she plans to continue eating spinach without any health worries.

“I wish it would come back [sooner],” she said.

Contrary to common perception, E. coli can contaminate more than just beef — even something as seemingly benign as spinach, said Ruthanne Marcus, an expert in foodborne diseases and a lecturer at the Yale School of Public Health. In 1996, Connecticut had two outbreaks of the bacteria, one with contaminated lettuce and one with apple cider, she said.

The lettuce turned out to have been washed in irrigation water that had been contaminated with E. coli-carrying manure, while the apples used in the cider had come in contact with deer feces in the orchard, Marcus said.

“It all goes back to the cow, or some type of animal that would harbor E. coli,” she said. “Somehow, that pathogen had to contaminate the produce somewhere, either in the field or during production.”

But such instances of contamination are rare, Marcus said, and leafy greens should not be feared.

“We can’t stop eating everything,” she said. “You don’t want to get the wrong message that these foods are dangerous.”

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