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2 indicted over food poisoning at school

Education officials allegedly knew of tainted chicken

Two Illinois State Board of Education employees were indicted Wednesday on charges of reckless conduct for allegedly allowing ammonia-tainted lunches to be served in a Joliet school, sickening 44 teachers and pupils.

Will County State's Atty. Jeff Tomczak charged that Katherine Keylor and Mark Haller, who oversaw the state's school lunch program, "recklessly endangered" the welfare of pupils and teachers by repeatedly ignoring warnings that the food had been contaminated during an ammonia leak at a storage facility in St. Louis.

"The board of education was asleep at the wheel," Tomczak said during a news conference Wednesday. "I hope these charges serve as a wake-up call. ... Bureaucrats who recklessly harm the same children they are paid to protect will be held responsible by the citizens who pay their salaries."

The misdemeanor criminal charges against the government officials--rare in food poisoning cases--were the first criminal indictments stemming from the November 2002 incident. But Tomczak said his office is still investigating whether charges should be filed against the private companies that stored and shipped the spoiled chicken tenders.

Tomczak's findings mirror those published in a Tribune report Sunday. Internal e-mails and memos obtained through the Freedom of Information Act revealed that state officials knew a year before the Joliet incident that a plan to salvage the ammonia-drenched food by bathing it in sulfur and carbon dioxide had not worked.

In one e-mail obtained by the Tribune, Keylor suggested that officials recall tainted beef. "My opinion right now is to tell [the company] to destroy the 141 cases, give any school that received the 325 cases a notice to destroy what they had received and give them replacements."

However, schools were never called or warned about the beef or the chicken that sickened the students in Joliet.

Keylor, who retired in February as the chief consultant over nutrition programs, could not be reached for comment.

Haller was removed Wednesday from his position as division administrator for nutrition programs and will be reassigned. He declined to comment and referred questions to the state board attorneys.

But state Supt. Robert Schiller expressed frustration over how the agency handled the food contamination problem.

"This obviously fell through the cracks," said Schiller, who was hired after the ammonia leak had occurred. "The food should not have been shipped. Why didn't somebody immediately step in and say `Stop'?"

The board said it is conducting an internal investigation and already has made changes to its food distribution procedures, including swifter notification to schools about potential problems and insisting on better documentation from private companies about food that may be spoiled.

Teachers and parents of some pupils sickened after eating the bad chicken said they were pleased with the charges.

"No one should have to send their child to school wondering if he is going to get sick from a school lunch--that's just not right," said Jacqueline Bailey, whose 13-year-old son ended up in the hospital emergency room after eating the chicken. "I hope these people get the message. You have to be careful about the food you give to kids."

School food poisoning outbreaks have increased nearly 60 percent in the last decade, but Bill Maller, a Seattle attorney who has handled nearly 4,000 food poisoning cases and hundreds involving schools, said he has never heard of a government official being charged.

"To be honest, I'm shocked," said Maller, whose law firm is representing 35 pupils and teachers at Laraway School in Joliet. "Hopefully, these criminal charges will send a message to government officials and to the industry that they need to do right by our kids."

Haller and Keylor each face 45 misdemeanor charges, which carry a sentence of up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500 on each count. But prosecutors said they would not likely seek the full penalty for all charges.

The ammonia leak linked to the Laraway food poisoning occurred Nov. 18, 2001, when a pipe ruptured at Gateway Cold Storage, spewing liquid ammonia across thousands of cases of frozen food, including some bound for Illinois schools.

Though Gateway officials and the U.S. Department of Agriculture knew about the leak, they did not notify Illinois education authorities. The state board found out nine days later when cafeteria managers complained.

Gateway, working with federal regulators, developed a plan to salvage the school meals by repeatedly bombarding ammonia-tainted boxed food with sulfur and carbon dioxide.

Less than a month after the food shipments resumed, cafeteria managers started complaining to state education authorities about beef and chicken that reeked of ammonia.

"They did absolutely nothing about the complaints," Tomczak said. "No faxes, no phone calls, no embargoes, no warnings to schools. It was reckless of them not to notify schools."

On Nov. 25, a year after the first complaint, pupils and teachers at Laraway School ate a lunch of chicken tenders, green beans and apricots. Some vomited. Many were rushed to the hospital.

The poultry later showed ammonia contamination levels as high as 133 times the acceptable amount, according to state health officials.

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune

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