Illinois education officials knew a plan to treat ammonia-tainted school lunch food did not work, fouling thousands of meals, but they never notified the schools that had the food in their freezers, according to state documents.
Cafeteria managers statewide had complained for a year about ammonia-soaked potato wedges, grayish beef patties and moldy chicken tenders. Illinois State Board of Education officials told them to return or destroy the food, but never alerted other districts about the potentially harmful meals.
In November, a year after the first complaint, 42 students and teachers at Laraway Elementary School in Joliet became ill and were rushed to the hospital after eating chicken tenders loaded with ammonia.
State education officials have said in previous interviews that they knew a November 2001 ammonia leak at a St. Louis food storage facility may have damaged the food, but they said they assumed a plan to treat the meals by fumigation had worked. However, documents show the board knew in early 2002 that despite the salvage plan, ammonia-laden food was showing up in schools.
The state board wasn’t the only entity that made questionable decisions when it came to keeping harmful food away from schoolchildren.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates meat and poultry for school lunches, allowed food to be shipped out of the St. Louis warehouse after the ammonia leak despite a quarantine order, according to St. Louis and Missouri health officials.
Lanter Co., which contracts with the state to ship and store school meals, re-boxed the chicken tenders without a federal inspector present in apparent violation of federal food safety laws, according to the state board’s lawyer.
And neither of the federal agencies involved ever approved the treatment plan to clear the ammonia from the meat and poultry, even though education and health officials assumed they had.
Some Laraway parents say they are angry over how federal and state regulators dealt with the potential food contamination problem.
“Somebody should have to pay for this,” said Lavonne Buell, whose 12-year-old daughter vomited five times moments after eating the bad poultry. “How could they care so little about the kids, that they would just look the other way and serve them any old food. Don’t these people care whether this food is safe or not?”
Today, each agency denies culpability and blames others. Only the Illinois State Board of Education acknowledges the system did not work as it should have.
“There are a lot of things that the State Board of Education could have done or should have done,” said Harry Blackburn, attorney for the board. “But our major concern right now is to look at the future and say, ‘This is unacceptable. We cannot allow this to occur in the future.’”
Blackburn said the board has launched an internal investigation into the matter.
The USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates fruit and vegetables in school lunches, also are conducting investigations.
The Will county state’s attorney’s office, which has convened a grand jury to look into the incident, has not ruled out possible criminal charges.
The ammonia link to the Laraway food poisoning occurred Nov. 18, 2001, when a pipe ruptured on the 6th floor at Gateway Cold Storage in St. Louis, spewing 90 pounds of liquid ammonia into freezers containing thousands of cases of food, including some bound for Illinois schools.
Toxic fumes crept through the six-story building and permeated cardboard boxes holding plastic-wrapped, child-size portions of chicken, beef, potatoes and cheese.
A Gateway attorney said his clients immediately notified the proper authorities. But FDA, state board, and St. Louis and Missouri health officials said they were not told of the leak.
The USDA knew, however. The agency had an inspector at Gateway in connection with a separate food safety investigation. But the USDA did not tell schools or other agencies about the chemical spill, agency officials acknowledge. Asked why, USDA spokesman Steven Cohen said: “I don’t know. That’s the responsibility of [Gateway].”
The leak came to light nine days later, when Illinois cafeteria workers complained about harsh-smelling potato wedges. St. Louis health officials were notified and immediately quarantined all food at the warehouse until Gateway and federal regulators could develop a plan to salvage the food.
But Missouri and St. Louis health officials say the USDA ignored the quarantine and let Gateway ship food.
USDA’s Cohen denied that accusation.
Regardless, state education officials suspected 3,800 cases of potato wedges, turkeys and beef patties had been shipped to schools after the leak, but before they had been treated, according to documents obtained by the Tribune through the Freedom of Information Act.
Still, the board did not alert Illinois schools. “This is one of the things we are looking into,” Blackburn said.
But Blackburn said the Illinois Department of Public Health told education officials that the food was safe as long as it was not directly sprayed with ammonia and was in plastic inside a cardboard box when the leak occurred.
“We are under the impression that this was not a public health risk,” he said.
Health officials take a different view. “We told them it probably wasn’t a health issue, but it certainly was a quality issue and, as such, the product should be returned,” said P.J. Burtle-McCredie, a spokeswoman with the Department of Health.
The St. Louis Department of Health lifted the quarantine order at Gateway on Dec. 13, 2001, after federal regulators approved the treatment plan for fruits and vegetables.
The plan called for tossing out ammonia-soaked food, including 6,648 cases of Illinois lunch meals. Boxed food that reeked of the chemical would be repeatedly bombarded with sulfur and carbon dioxide until the aroma abated.
On Dec. 15, the Illinois school board sent an E-mail to schools telling them food deliveries would be delayed due to an ammonia leak. The e-mail said the food was safe to consume, but the boxes might have an odor.
Less than a month after the food shipments resumed, schools across the state started complaining about beef patties that stunk of ammonia.
Nataly Wilcox, head dietitian for the Swann Special Care Center in Champaign, said cafeteria workers opened a bag of hamburger patties and “about fell over.”
“It was like someone opened a bottle of chlorine in the kitchen,” she said.
Wilcox said she called the state board and was told the food was safe to eat.
“I just told them, ‘I’m not going to use it. I have high-risk kids,’” Wilcox said. “I didn’t care what they said. Why would you serve something like that?”
As complaints poured in throughout the rest of the school year, education officials told individual districts to return or destroy the damaged food. But they did not send a statewide message alerting schools not to serve it.
By August 2002, after at least two dozen schools had complained about foul smelling food, state officials began to worry.
Katherine Keylor, who oversaw the state’s lunch program, said in one e-mail to her boss that she called an executive at Lanter, the food shipping company, and asked him to check the beef patties in storage.
“Sure enough, [he] said they smelled like ammonia (If he admitted it, they probably smelled pretty strong by the time they got to the school),” Keylor wrote. “H[He} does not want a repeat of last year, where schools were calling constantly.
In the e-mail, Keylor worried about 328 boxes of beef patties in school freezers across the state. She suggested the state call schools and tell them to destroy the patties.
Schools were never called, Blackburn acknowledged.
As the state board scrambled to deal with the beef problem, another one erupted. In October 2002, cafeteria workers began complaining about chicken tenders, nuggets and patties that either reeked of ammonia or were in damaged or unfamiliar boxes.
On Oct. 16, state education officials e-mailed Lanter and said they would come to Lanter warehouse in Granite City and inspect the poultry themselves.
But Blackburn said the poultry was never inspected because it was gone when board officials arrived. Schools were never notified about the potential contamination.
“Retrospectively, you say, ‘Why didn’t we do it?’ I don’t know,” Blackburn said.
Board officials said they asked Lanter on several occasions to retrieve contaminated food or alert districts about possible problems, but Lanter failed to comply.
Still, the board renewed a five-year, $12 million contract with Lanter in July 2002 as the contamination problem spiraled out of control. Lanter officials did not return repeated phone calls.
On Nov. 25, students and teachers at Laraway School dined on a lunch of chicken tenders, green beans and apricots. Within a half hour, they complained of stomach pains and a burning sensation in their throats. 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.
A year after the leak, the state board told Lanter to collect the 360 cases of chicken tenders sitting in 49 school freezers in Illinois.
Chris Freudinger, who oversees the lunch program in Steger Elementary District 194, said he is concerned about the way federal and state officials handled the possible food contamination problem. Freudinger twice returned suspect chicken tenders.
“We are at their mercy,” he said of the food safety monitors. “I think they should adopt the same policy most of us have adopted: If you wouldn’t eat it yourself, don’t serve it to kids.”