Unit 5 Investigation: The School Lunch Secret


Probe Questions Safety Of Federal Food Program

CHICAGO -- In a Unit 5 investigation, Dave Savini looked into contaminated food from the Federal Food Commodities Program, under which the government purchases 30 million pounds of food for school cafeterias every year.

"E. coli, cigarette butts, choking hazards," Savini said, as he listed some of the things that turned up in his investigation. "Blood transfusions, kidney failure, salmonella -- children are getting sick from what's being served to them in the lunchroom ... Kids in 1,500 Illinois lunchrooms are eating food from the program."

Savini said the commodities program is "a multimillion-dollar industry for food processors, farmers, and cold storage warehouses."

Tracey McCullom, whose son Weems attends Laraway Elementary School, in Joliet, Ill., told Savini she's worried that profit is coming before safety when it comes to school lunches. She said she's concerned that bad food is being served instead of destroyed, to save money.

"There was like 30 kids just sitting on the ground just throwing up and stuff," Weems said about one time when he got sick from a school lunch.

Weems and 43 other students and teachers from Laraway Elementary School were rushed to emergency rooms last November. Another 100 children became sick, as well -- all after eating ammonia-tainted chicken from the commodities program, Savini said.

"You could see that, like, the meat was red and it smelled like Windex," Weems said.

Savini said the problems are not confined to Joliet.

"We obtained a list of Commodities food complaints from other Illinois schools -- records that detail choking hazards, such as wire and rubber pieces in hamburger patties," Savini said.

Savini said reports showed that students have found buckshot while eating their burgers, a cigarette butt in food, a metal screw in a French fry, a peach pit in diced peaches that stuck in one child's throat, fruit with worms and bugs in it, and bones in diced chicken.

"Canned chicken at one school had a little something extra -- feathers and chicken feet," Savini said. "One school reported finding what looked like worms in their chicken -- chicken that the school served anyway."

In the Illinois cases he investigated, Savini said Weems and other children who got sick from school lunches recovered quickly.

"But kids in other states have not been as lucky," Savini said. "A.J. Almquist and 10 classmates got E. coli five years ago from ommodities-program beef served at his Washington-area school. He and two other children suffered severe kidney damage and will need transplants."

Savini said records involving the Joliet incident showed that a warehouse ammonia leak tainted the chicken and other stored products, but cases of food from the warehouse were shipped to schools anyhow. Schools immediately complained about discolored and ammonia-smelling food, Savini said, yet they were not told about the ammonia leak.

"How could you package food, send it to children -- to children, mind you, to children -- knowing that it was contaminated?" Tracey McCullom asked. "If one or nine schools sent the stuff back or alerted them of it, how could they continue to ship it out?"

After state and federal agencies launched investigations into the commodities program, records and photographs showed that some tainted food was destroyed, Savini said. But one document said that 361 cases of food that was considered unsafe were still shipped to 49 Illinois schools.

"The food that was deemed safe to eat was cleaned up, reboxed and shipped to lunchrooms -- again, with no warning," Savini said.

Savini said records showed that the schools were not contacted about the tainted warehouse food until a year after the leak -- and not until after the Joliet outbreak.

"Any system, of course, is not foolproof," Ron Vogel, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the commodities program, told Savini. "There are occasions where products we buy have defects ... We have the same safety guarantees for the food we buy that you might have, in terms of the food you purchase at the grocery store."

Attorney Bill Marler, who represents A.J. Almquist and the McCullom family, claims the Commodities Program is more about politics than safety.

"School districts are strapped. They're trusting that the governments that are sending them the products have done due dilligence, making sure the product is safe," Marler said. ""Part of the problem with the commodities purchase program is the fact that it has very little to do with safe products. It has everything to do with politics."

Savin said he obtained a federal document that shows an Illinois lawmaker got involved in the ammonia leak case -- not to stop the food from being sent to schools but to get the chicken reboxed and shipped out.

A USDA spokesman would not talk about Unit 5's specific findings, Savini said, but the spokesman did say the charges were being investigated.