Sunday, July 21, 2013


School lunch has been in the news this past week. The food poisoning in a school in Bihar, India, has horrified the world. It resulted in the death of at least 23 children who had eaten the school lunch. Many more were hospitalized, including one of the cooks. This was followed by another incident of school lunch-linked food poisoning in Goa State in India. So is eating school lunch dangerous for children? Sometimes, yes.

Don't get me wrong: I think school lunch is a good idea. I remember how much I personally appreciated it when I was a poor, malnourished and hungry war refugee. And, although I did not work exclusively on the issue during my years with the United Nations, I did visit and evaluate several good school lunch programs in a number of countries - yes, including in India, and yes, in Bihar State. Though it is true that there were safety risks in some, and also incidents of corruption (such as stealing of food, dilution of milk and so on).

The reported cases of food poisoning in schools in India seems to have been chemical poisoning, caused by a very toxic agricultural pesticide. It is believed that the cooking oil used was the source of the one in Bihar. In Third World countries such as India, oil is often sold in bulk, and people bring their own containers. Due to lack of knowledge, these may be recycled pesticide containers. Or, the oil may have been contaminated at the store. Investigation is ongoing.

In developed nations such as the United States, Canada and Europe, the safety issues in school lunch tend to be different. Chemical poisoning very rarely occurs. But, other kinds of food poisoning are more of a risk than in home cooked meals. The reason is that institutional food, prepared and served in bulk, is always more risky. This increased food safety risk also applies to hospitals, nursing homes, catered food at conventions, and so on.

While the National School Lunch Program in the United States is carefully supervised, not just for nutritional value but also for safety, there have still been food poisoning outbreaks in a number of schools. I do not recall any due to agricultural chemicals, but there have been ones caused by bacteria and viruses. The most far-reaching one on record sickened some 1,200 children in seven states, and was probably caused by mold toxins in the frozen burritos served to children, all of which originated in a plant in Chicago.

Several bad outbreaks have also been narrowly avoided thanks to good monitoring. These include the one I blogged in September, 2011. In this instance, an Amarillo, Texas, firm, sent frozen ground meat to Georgia warehouses for distribution to schools. The meat was subsequently found to be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. Fortunately, the problem was discovered and most of the meat caught before it actually arrived at the schools.

But just because there are safety risks in school lunch programs does not argue for abandoning them. It does argue for careful supervision.

To your good health,

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