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Felony counts filed over tainted lunch

More than 100 Joliet children got sick in 2002

In an unusual move, federal authorities have indicted a Downstate man on felony charges of conspiracy, transporting uninspected poultry and lying to federal authorities in a 2002 food poisoning incident that sickened more than 100 children and teachers at a Joliet school.

Edward L. Wuebbels of Albers is the third person to be criminally charged in one of the state's largest school food poisoning outbreaks.

Two Illinois State Board of Education employees were indicted last year in the incident at Laraway Elementary School, which sent three dozen pupils to the hospital after they ate ammonia-tainted chicken tenders. Those misdemeanor cases are pending.

Wuebbels, an operations manager at a food distribution warehouse in Granite City, pleaded not guilty Thursday. His attorney, William Stiehl Jr., declined to comment on the charges, saying only that it was "too early to say anything."

Wuebbels could get up to 16 years in prison if convicted on the six felony counts.

Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer who has represented hundreds of children and families in lawsuits over food-borne illnesses, called the indictments "very unusual, but very welcome."

"It's about time someone cracked down on these people," said Marler, whose firm represented 35 pupils and teachers at Laraway School in a civil case that recently was settled for an undisclosed amount. "It is so rare that these people get charged. But in this case, I think it was so egregious that the government had no choice. I applaud them and wish we would see more of this."

According to the indictment filed in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Illinois, Wuebbels ordered the chicken to be shipped from a cold-storage warehouse in St. Louis that had experienced a massive ammonia leak, and then ordered it re-boxed and sent to schools across Illinois.

The indictment also charges that Wuebbels altered the U.S. Department of Agriculture labels, making it appear as though the chicken had been inspected by the federal agency when it had not. Wuebbels also is charged with falsifying shipping records.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Norm Smith said he could not comment on the indictment and would not say whether the investigation will continue.

The incident at Laraway highlights the problems that have plagued the nation's school lunch program, which provides roughly 15 percent of the food students in the U.S. eat. School food illness outbreaks reported to federal officials soared 56 percent in the 1990s.

A Tribune investigation published three years ago found unsafe practices in the factories that make school meals and in the kitchens and cafeterias where they are warmed and served. The series sparked congressional hearings.

The November 2002 incident at Laraway began when dozens of students ate a school lunch of chicken tenders and green beans. The children immediately began complaining of nausea and some vomited. A strong odor of ammonia was detected in the cafeteria.

The discovery of that the chicken was tainted, which Illinois health officials said showed ammonia contamination of up to 133 times the acceptable level, sent state education officials scurrying to gather up 360 cases of chicken tenders sent to 49 public schools, including 11 in the Chicago area.

They were able to locate only 67 cases. The remaining chicken already had been eaten by students or possibly destroyed by schools.

A Tribune investigation later found that state board officials and federal regulators had known for months before the Joliet incident that the breaded chicken tenders might have been contaminated by the ammonia leak.

The contamination was first discovered by the state board in November 2001, when several schools complained that lunches shipped from Gateway Cold Storage in St. Louis reeked of ammonia.

When state officials called Gateway, they learned the plant had experienced what investigators called a major ammonia leak. A private facility, Gateway stores tens of thousands of cases of frozen food for various entities, including Illinois schools.

The State Board of Education put a hold on food coming out of Gateway until members could meet with federal regulators and health officials to develop a cleanup plan.

That plan, according to documents obtained by the Tribune, included tossing out food that had direct contact with ammonia.

Food boxes that smelled of ammonia would be repeatedly fumigated with sulfur and carbon dioxide until the aroma abated.

More than 7,000 cases of food for Illinois school lunches were destroyed, including turkey, cheese and potato wedges.

None of the chicken tenders were thrown out, however, according to state education officials.

Instead they were fumigated and repackaged, state officials said.

Smith would not give details of Wuebbels' role in the shipping of the food, nor would he say where Wuebbels worked.

Documents obtained by the Tribune show that Wuebbels worked at Lanter Co., which is where the food was shipped to once it left Gateway.

In July 2002, the indictment alleges, Wuebbels oversaw the "unlawful reboxing" of the poultry. The food was then shipped to schools across Illinois.

State officials have since developed a policy that requires them to report any complaints of suspect food to state health officials and the proper federal officials.

State and federal officials also meet quarterly to discuss food quality issues.

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