Friday, March 24, 2017


I want to say right at the outset, that I believe in the value of school lunch. When I was a poor malnourished refugee child, I really appreciated that food. It is very hard to pay attention in class if you are hungry. But food poisoning outbreaks at schools are not unusual, simply because institutional food, prepared and served in bulk, is always more risky. And of course, such outbreaks get a lot of media coverage.

Recently there was a very large outbreak in Egypt caused by a school lunch (see earlier post), in which some 3,300 children had to be sent to hospital. In all, it is estimated that there have been 4,650 school lunch associated food poisoning cases nationwide in Egypt just this month (March, 2017). But Egypt is not the only country where such outbreaks occur. I have read case studies of school food poisoning outbreaks in India, Canada, UK, Japan and elsewhere. How the school lunch is organized and how sanitary the conditions are, varies in these and other countries.

In the United States, the National School Lunch Program is carefully supervised, but even then, food poisoning outbreaks occur. It is estimated that between 1991 and 2000 (I don’t have later statistics) there were 300 outbreaks of food poisoning in American schools, which made at least 16,000 students ill. The largest during that decade affected school children in seven states in 1997-1998. It was unusual in that it was caused by a toxic mold in frozen burritos.

But there have been many different types of causes over the years. Bacteria such as Salmonella, E.coli and Staphylococcus strains have been found to cause food poisoning in school lunches. Even agricultural chemicals have been involved, though less than they are in Third World countries. Several incidents have of course been caused by the common norovirus. That was the cause of the recent outbreak of food poisoning at the St. Charles East High School in Illinois, USA, in which some 800 students became ill.

As of this past Wednesday, the Ministry of Education in Egypt suspended school lunches, which feed some 9 million students a day. It plans to set up a committee (the usual bureaucratic solution) and conduct an investigation of why school lunches are so unsafe. I can hazard a few guesses.


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