NewsChannel Five's Investigative Reporter Leisa Zigman found children were hospitalized but most parents have no idea about this school lunch secret.
Leisa reported on one incident in which she exposed how vulnerable the entire school lunch program may be. She also exposed the apparent bungling by federal regulators and Illinois state education officials.
In November, 2002 students at Laraway Elementary school in Joliet, Illinois, ate USDA approved chicken tenders. Within minutes children and teachers were throwing up in hallways and bathrooms. Student Weems McCullom said, "You can see the meat was red and it smelled like windex."
Illinois health officials found the chicken contaminated with high levels of ammonia. Parents like Tracey McCullom were livid. McCullom said, "That food should have never gotten to Laraway School."
NewsChannel Five obtained emails, internal documents and official reports through the Freedom of Information Act to piece together how this happened.
A company called Lanter, in Granite City, Illinoia, warehouses and transports thousands of pounds of food for the Illinois School Lunch Program. Lanter sends its overflow to Gateway Cold Storage in St. Louis.
Health Department officials say on November 18, 2001, a pipe ruptured at Gateway spewing 90 pounds of liquid ammonia on top of thousands of pounds of Illinois school food.
Larry Kettlehut, Director of Environmental Health Services for the St. Louis Health Department said, "You had a facility that was odorous, and toxically odorous as far as ammonia is concerned."
But neither Gateway, nor the USDA inspector on the site notified health officials or Illinois schools. Documents show the USDA allowed Gateway to continue shipping 800,000 pounds of food.
Cafeteria workers throughout Illinois started calling the Board of Education saying the food reeked of ammonia. Only after complaints started pouring in did Gateway notify the St. Louis Health Department.
Kettlehut said, "It occurred on the 18th. We found out about it on the 28th, November 28th, 2001. Leisa asked, "Is that ok?" "Oh no, that is not ok," Kettlehut said. "What we found was very concerning. We had a lot of boxes of food that had ammonia spilled on them, leaked on them."
St. Louis health officials closed part of the building and quarantined all the food. But according to a memo from a State health investigator, "The USDA failed to honor the request and continued to ship USDA products from the warehouse." The USDA isn't commenting.
Parent Tracey Mccullom said, "How could you package food, send it to children, to children, mind you, to children, knowing it was contaminated?" Officials ordered more than 7,000 cases of food destroyed. They said food that tested safe was bombarded with sulfur and carbon dioxide to get the smell out. Then it was re-boxed and shipped to schools. Kettlehut said, "On December 12, we lifted the embargo."
Schools in Illinois had no idea food was exposed to ammonia. The USDA never sent notices. The Illinois Board of Education never did either.
McCollum said, "Instead of just getting rid of the food, does it really cost that much to get more chicken tenders?"
The owners of Lanter would not comment on camera. Either would Dave Machega, owner of Gateway. But Gateway's attorney, Ron Jenkins, told us the USDA approved everything.
Jenkins said, "Gateway did not ship anything to anybody that was of any harmful quality."
Leisa asked, "Why not call the health department or alert Illinois Schools immediately?"
Jenkins said, "The school board is not our customer. Lanter is our customer."
Jenkins went on to say Gateway immediately called Lanter. Lanter's attorney disputes that claim.
Even after the food was fumigated, complaints continued to pour in. Again, records show, schools were left in the dark.
McCollum said, "If one or nine sent the food back, how could they have continued to ship it out?" Records show 361 cases of food not considered safe, were shipped to 49 Illinois schools.
Nearly one year after the ammonia leak in St. Louis, students at Laraway began throwing up. Everyone recovered. Leisa asked Kettlehut, "Did the (Federal) government serve kids well in Illinois?" Kettlehut said, "It doesn't appear that way. It certainly doesn't appear that way."
The USDA wouldn't comment because it says it's still investigating the 2001 spill. A spokesman would not comment on how long the investigation will take.
In May, two Illinois Board of Education officials were indicted on charges of reckless conduct for allegedly allowing the ammonia tainted lunches to be served.
NewsChannel Five has confirmed the U.S. Attorney is investigating Lanter for possible criminal charges. Attorneys for Lanter and Gateway say their clients are cooperating fully with all investigations.
If you want to know whether your child's school was affected by the ammonia leak, contact the Illinois Board of Education. The USDA also has a school lunch complaint line:
toll-free hotline number: 1-800-446-6991
or e-mail : email@example.com
The USDA does not have a public database listing types of food complaints. Currently, there are no plans to create one. A spokesperson with the USDA said anyone could request a free copy of these documents through the complaint hotline.