Kati Phillips of The Star reports that yeasty juice may be to blame for an outbreak of stomach cramps and nausea at a Park Forest middle school last week.
Tests ordered by Ceres Food Group indicate mixed fruit juice served to sixth-graders at Forest Trail Middle School in Park Forest/Chicago Heights School District 163 had higher than normal levels of yeast.
The juice tested negative for harmful bacteria such as listeria, E. coli, salmonella, lactic acid and other toxins, said Ceres president John Koubek.
High levels of yeast can result in an upset stomach, but there are no long-term effects from its consumption, he said.
The officials at the Cook County Department of Public Health have doubts about the finding. Yeast does not necessarily cause a quick reaction, spokeswoman Kitty Loewy said.
And there is no conclusive evidence that it was the juice that caused two students to vomit and 15 others to complain of nausea and lightheadedness, she said.
“A lot of kids complained, but there is also the phenomena of hysterical reaction, especially in that age group,” Loewy said.
The 4 ounce juice boxes — which students said tasted and smelled bad — contained a 100 percent natural apple, orange, grape and pineapple juice concentrate, according to its producer, Country Pure Foods.
Yeast, which naturally occurs on the skin of fruit, should have been removed during pasteurization, Koubek said.
Ceres is investigating what would have allowed the yeast to grow in some, but not all, of the juice boxes in a production lot.
“It’s not just a matter of temperature,” Koubek said. “All our data indicates the juice was properly stored and handled, at least while it was in the possession of Ceres.”
Country Pure Foods is cooperating with Ceres on the investigation, said Paul Sukalich, senior vice president for operations.
“All available records indicate that the juice was produced in keeping with all required standards and delivered to our customer in keeping with specific refrigeration requirements during transportation,” he said.
Ceres recalled the juice from approximately 350 Chicagoland schools last week after 17 students at Forest Trail Middle School complained of symptoms ranging from vomiting to lightheadedness.
Unaware of that problem, a food service worker at a New Lenox school also called Ceres that day to report juice smelled funny.
She was directed to pull juice from all New Lenox School District 122 schools, and no children became ill, Supt. Mike Sass said.
Mike Schroeder, director of organizational planning for District 122, said Tuesday night school personnel still are not providing any juice. They have been monitoring health records and no students reported any of the symptoms, he said.
No Country Pure Food juice will be served at the schools until the investigations are complete, Koubek said.
The Park Forest students who complained of stomach aches allege the juice boxes were expired, but officials said the expiration dates are printed on cases and not the boxes.
The juice had a 30-day shelf life, according to Country Pure Foods standards, and Ceres recommended consumption within 21 days life, Koubek said.
When served to the children, the juice boxes were 10 days away from the producer’s expiration date and one day before Ceres’ date, Koubek said.
The Cook County health department plans to pass out questionnaires to sixth-graders to see what they ate and when. The department will not test the juice because the most serious symptom — vomiting — was experienced by just two students.
On Friday, Ceres plans to begin serving Vita Fresh juice boxes produced by Cal-Tex Citrus of Houston, Texas, according to a letter sent out by Koubek to school districts.