Suit: USDA withholding info

Lawyers want poisoned food documents released

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is improperly withholding documents concerning 44 Joliet teachers and pupils poisoned by contaminated school lunches, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

Seattle law firm Marler Clark is asking a federal judge in Washington state to order the documents be released.

The documents should show whether USDA employees were aware the food was contaminated and allowed it to be shipped to schools anyway.

"The USDA is a public agency, funded by our tax dollars. The public at large, and the families of these poisoned children, have a right to know how federal government officials allowed this to happen," attorney David Babcock said.

"If there is a loophole in the system in place to protect the safety of school lunches, it must be closed."

Julie Quick, a spokeswoman for the USDA, declined to comment. The agency had not received the lawsuit, she said.

This is the third lawsuit related to a food poisoning episode last November at Joliet's Laraway Elementary School in which 42 students and two teachers became sick after eating chicken tenders contaminated with ammonia.

The company that shipped the tainted chicken to the school, and the state employees who oversaw the school lunch program, face separate lawsuits.

Marler Clark represents about a third of the students and teachers who were sickened after eating the chicken.

The firm filed a civil lawsuit in Will County Circuit Court in January, claiming a St. Louis storage facility knowingly shipped food contaminated with anhydrous ammonia to Laraway.

Gateway Cold Storage "owed a duty to the children and teachers to distribute a product that was fit for human consumption," that lawsuit says.

Will County State's Attorney Jeff Tomczak recently indicted two Illinois State Board of Education employees on 45 counts of reckless conduct for their roles in the outbreak.

The state employees failed to warn Laraway officials that the chicken was contaminated even though they received complaints from seven other cafeteria managers about food that smelled of ammonia.

Babcock said it is apparent from Tomczak's investigation that the USDA also knew of the food contamination, and its eventual shipment to school lunch programs.

Anhydrous ammonia is a gas with extremely toxic vapors that can cause great harm to people, including death.

The school lunches were soaked with ammonia, and toxic fumes permeated packaging in November 2001 when a refrigeration pipe broke at Gateway Cold Storage.

Some food was destroyed, while other rations were fumigated, deemed safe and shipped to schools. No other illnesses have been reported.