Edward L. Wuebbels, 46, of Albers in Clinton County, is a manager at Lanter Co., which was under contract with the Illinois State Board of Education to store and ship school lunches. He pleaded guilty in federal court in East St. Louis of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Department of Agriculture and making false statements. He will face a sentence estimated at 24 to 30 months in prison.
According to court documents, the problem began Nov. 19, 2001, with an ammonia leak at the St. Louis warehouse of Gateway Cold Storage. Officials believed that the chicken, in sealed plastic, could be repackaged and relabeled without harm to consumers.
But Wuebbels asked Gateway to ship the product to Lanter, and ordered employees there to do the repackaging and relabeling even though it is not an approved inspection site. As a result, the product was not properly inspected.
From 300 to 600 boxes were shipped, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Norman Smith. Most were not affected by the ammonia. But a shipment to Laraway Elementary School in Joliet had been contaminated and was prepared on Nov. 25, 2002, officials said.
"When it was cooked, there was a smell of ammonia in the air," Smith said.
An estimated 170 people who ate the chicken complained of stomach aches, and 60 went to hospitals. Most were treated and released; none was permanently injured.
Smith said Wuebbels tried to cover up his actions by lying to a food safety investigator.