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Inmates fall ill after Christmas dinner

The prison food provider suspects a virus, while corrections officials suspect food poisoning.

Published December 30, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Christmas dinner at a state prison came with all the trimmings, including a batch of turkey suspected of causing an outbreak of food poisoning among about 170 inmates.

Prisoners at the maximum security Union Correctional Institution in Raiford started complaining of stomach pains soon after Thursday's holiday meal. Two inmates required intravenous fluids, and 168 others took Pepto-Bismol or other over-the-counter remedies to cope with diarrhea and nausea, prison officials said.

"It was probably a bad pan of turkey," Corrections Secretary Jim Crosby said. "We don't know that for a fact. We sent the samples to the Health Department for them to check."

No inmates have gotten sick since then. The Department of Health has a food-borne illness investigation under way and will analyze samples of turkey for possible contamination, said a spokeswoman, Lindsay Hodges.

Aramark Corp., the Philadelphia company hired to feed Florida's inmates, suspects the sickness was caused by a virus, not bad food.

Company employees always taste food before serving it and "they loved it," said Aramark spokesman Doug Warnehe. A couple of inmates even wrote letters praising the meal.

Union County Health Department inspector Richard Land visited the prison Monday and found conditions satisfactory.

"Storage temps for Christmas Day meal were recorded and correct," Land wrote in a one-page report. "Storage and handling of food items good. Shallow pans used, covered."

Food quality is a serious issue in prison. Corrections officers worry that complaints about under-cooked meat or cold spaghetti can quickly escalate into disorder.

Aramark has had a sometimes rocky tenure since it snared a state contract in 2001 to cook meals in most Florida prisons. The company was fined $110,000 by the state in its first year for sanitation and preparation problems.

Aramark was one of the largest privatization ventures in state government under Gov. Jeb Bush, who has made it a priority to save money.

Crosby said the incident was isolated. "We serve 325,000 meals a day, and you're going to have incidents that involve food," he said.

[Last modified December 30, 2003, 01:16:10]

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