Tainted food and bad decisions

Potato wedges reeking of ammonia. Grayish beef patties. Moldy chicken tenders. Is that the type of food anyone would serve dogs, let alone children?

Incredibly, this is not a rhetorical question.

Last year, such food was sent to schools throughout Illinois as the result of shameful bungling by state education officials and federal food regulators. For over a year, they failed to recall tainted food or warn local schools.

The regulators carried on as if they were more concerned with the bottom line of the food distributors than with the health of Illinois children.

On Wednesday, two Illinois State Board of Education employees were indicted in Will County for recklessly endangering the welfare of pupils and teachers by repeatedly ignoring warnings that food served in public schools had been contaminated by ammonia at a St. Louis warehouse.

The courts will sort out whether this was criminal behavior. State and federal officials still must sort out how the people who were supposed to ensure the quality of the food so utterly failed to protect the children.

As reported Sunday by the Tribune's Stephanie Banchero, the problem with contaminated school food exploded in November, when 44 students and teachers at Laraway Elementary School in Joliet became ill and were rushed to the hospital after eating tainted chicken tenders.

The trail of bad food began a year earlier with an ammonia leak at a St. Louis food storage facility. State education officials said they knew the incident might have spoiled the food but assumed that a plan to treat the food with sulfur and carbon dioxide would take care of the contamination.

For months after the incident, cafeteria managers and school officials throughout the state complained repeatedly about the noxious smelling food. The state school board failed to alert public schools about the possibility of tainted food--or of suspicions that approximately 3,800 cases of potato wedges, turkeys and beef patties had been shipped to school cafeterias even before they were treated.

Natalie Wilcox, head dietitian at the Swann Special Care Center in Champaign, said that cafeteria workers nearly fell over from the smell from a bag of hamburger patties. But state officials assured Wilcox the food was safe to eat.

The buck-passing and inaction by state school and health agencies and federal regulators continued while the bad food continued to be shipped to schools for most of last year.

Investigators are looking into the breakdown of the quality control system for school food. While they are it, they ought to explain why in July the state board of education renewed a $12 million, five-year contract with Lanter Co., one of the firms involved in this sickening tale.