By Natalie Schwartz and Jillian Atelsek
Senior staff writers

The University of Maryland Health Center is working with the Prince George's County Health Department to investigate at least eight cases of gastrointestinal illness after marching band members ate at the South Campus Dining Hall.

Members of this university's marching band, known as the Mighty Sound of Maryland, said the dining hall served their group food that made them sick during "early week," when students in the band begin practicing for the upcoming year.

Following the reports, the county health department visited the dining hall Wednesday for an inspection and found it compliant in all areas, David McBride, the health center's director, wrote in an email.

An investigation — which includes gathering information from those affected, collecting specimens to try and identify a common cause, inspecting dining facilities, and reviewing food handling and safety procedures — may take several days as patient laboratory studies conclude, McBride wrote in a statement.

Although some band members who fell ill had eaten some of the same foods, others who also ate those foods did not develop symptoms.

"At the moment, we have no reason to believe that food served at any establishment on campus is potentially dangerous," McBride wrote.

However, Rachael Higbee, who became ill for several days, said she feels confident the dining food caused her sickness.

"I was getting ill in the bathroom that [my roommates and I] share," said Higbee, a sophomore environmental science and policy and film studies major. "They were all around me, and nothing happened to them. If it was a stomach bug, I think they would have gotten sick."

The dining staff shrugged off the band members when they complained, Higbee said.

"They told us we had heat exhaustion," she said.

Dining Services spokesman Bart Hipple said the department investigated the complaints and takes it "very seriously."

The students should not blame their illnesses on the dining hall food, he added.

"Was it food poisoning?" Hipple asked. "I can't say absolutely not, but it does not seem likely."

Stephanie Hutchinson, a senior bioengineering major, said she witnessed many of her friends' problems, who continuously posted their stories in the marching band group text message. Hutchinson posted a picture of bread with visible mold on Twitter.

Dining Services staff reached out to Hutchinson after her tweet. Although she described their meeting as "productive," she said she remains "pretty concerned for people who have dining plans."

The situation was handled "immediately and directly with the people who made the sandwiches," Hipple said. While the bread had not reached its expiration date, there is no excuse for the mold, he added.

"That absolutely should not have happened," Hipple said. "I do not understand how someone could make a sandwich and not notice that the bread looked like that."

Melody Meyers, a sophomore government and politics major, said she also became sick during early week.

Meyers said she experienced symptoms for five full days. Unlike Higbee, she sought medical help.

Due to a lab error, she couldn't see her test results and couldn't confirm she suffered from a foodborne illness, Meyers said.

However, Meyers said her symptoms were "without a doubt" related to the food the dining hall served.

"The University of Maryland hasn't been calling it food poisoning," Meyers said. "I feel like they're trying to dismiss themselves from it."

This university should have issued "a direct statement of responsibility or ownership," Meyers said.

Hipple said he has high expectations for both the dining hall's food quality and the students' experiences there this school year.

"We're always trying to get better," Hipple said. "I'm sure as the semester goes on, we'll hear more positive and negative comments both."

Students with dining plans have mixed feelings about the food quality heading into the new school year. Some, such as freshman business management major Alex Poirier, are unenthusiastic.

"[The food] has been pretty average, but, I mean, you have to eat," Poirier said.

Poirier said he "probably wouldn't eat there anymore" if reports of food poisoning and other issues persisted or were confirmed.

Other students, such as senior Isaac Oluwasakin, remain optimistic.

"I appreciate the food here," the mechanical engineering major said. "The quality is pretty good."

Oluwasakin said the dining food complaints are problematic, but he doesn't believe they will stop him from eating in campus dining halls.

"The best I can do is hope and pray," he said.