Lua Wilkinson

Parents Question Bizarre Official Response to School Food Poisonings

hand holding chopstick
(Via Bigstockphoto)

It’s another grim reminder of the need for effective oversight of school meal programs. Just last week, 23 school children in India died after eating a tainted lunch. Not long before, in mid-April,  dozens of primary school students in two rural areas of Guangxi province in southern China became ill  after drinking milk provided as part of a school meal program. In each case, health officials declared that the students did not have food poisoning, but instead were afflicted with “psychological distress,” even though the milk caused identical symptoms in 55 students located over one hundred miles apart.

It started on April 19 of this year, when 20 children at a rural school in Baise, Guangxi complained of headaches and vomiting after eating a breakfast that included strawberry milk from the Lingshan Baiqiang Buffalo Dairy. Shortly thereafter, school principal Huang Caiqin announced that the illnesses were due to tainted milk, but the food safety commissioner later overruled him, concluding that the milk and all other food was free of contaminants. They did find some product mislabeling, but declared this not to be related to the children’s illness. Instead, the health department concluded the symptoms were signs of mental instability.

One month later in Hechi, a rural area located over 100 miles away from Baise, 35 students came down with similar symptoms and were sent to the hospital. Again, after sampling the milk, health officials concluded that psychological issues were to blame. The children were eventually released, and no deaths have been reported in connection with either the Hechi or Baise cases.

Parents aren’t buying the official explanation, calling them “unconvincing” and arguing that the two rural areas are too far apart and have little in common other than their use of Lingshan Baiqiang Buffalo Dairy’s milk. According to news reports, parents believe someone replaced the tainted milk with a better product only after the children came down with the illness, thus skewing subsequent investigative findings.

China’s government has scaled up school meal program in recent years, but resources devoted to ensuring quality and nutrition remain limited. Partly for this reason, school meal scandals have proliferated in Chinese media. Last year, five officials were charged with corruption after photos of substandard meals of bread and expired milk surfaced online.

Web users are now expressing their frustration over the continued food safety scandals in schools as part of what what Weibo user @画得美 identifies as “just another manifestation of corruption又一起腐败表现.” On the same day that the young students in Hechi were struck with illness, local leaders announced a new school nutrition program to provide meals to 450 children. Weibo user @姜颜妮 remarked, “Why are we focusing on nutrition in this country when we can’t even get food safety right? Let’s start with food safety在全国食品安全问题这么严重!还有脸谈“营养”?我们不需要营养,只需要食品安全就行。.”

Others are calling on the media to work harder. @Justinzhumilan wrote, “When a similar case happened in Japan, the media demanded an in-depth investigation rather than just sitting in their offices and questioning [the official explanation.]日本有一个类似案例,大致是如此,媒体需要深入调查,而不是坐在办公室质疑.

Whether the illnesses stemmed from problems in the private sector, lack of oversight in the school meal program, or the genuine (and apparently collective) mental instability of the children may never come to light. One commenter scolded skeptical netizens: “If the investigation shows that the food wasn’t a problem, it likely isn’t. If you don’t get this explanation, it just shows that you don’t fully understand the situation yourself.大牙是海盗船长: 不是有可能,如果检测食物确实没有问题的话。没听过这词只能说明你浅薄

But with the barrage of food safety scandals and corruption charges of officials in recent years, it is likely that foul play is behind the illnesses. “Corruption can also be considered a “psychological problem,反复的心理作用。。好强大。。贪污那么多也是心理作用吧。” Weibo user @废柴猫 wrote laughingly. @emma风语 wrote, “Just make the commissioner drink from the same batch of milk as the students. If he doesn’t vomit, then let him say whatever he wants哪个领导说的就让哪位领导喝同批次的,他要是坚持不吐,再说.”

Some Weibo users may have reacted with angry humor, but nutrition programs in rural China are serious business. For children there, school nutrition programs can improve academic performance and their chance of success later in life. But if sufficient resources are not provided to run school meal programs effectively, the opposite can occur, with malnutrition and food poisoning threatening young lives.

“This is the China that every [so-called food safety] expert dreams of,” one commenter lamented. “Every time there is a mass poisoning of children, it is the children’s fault这就是中国那几个老专家想出来的,每次有群体性儿童食物中毒事件,他们都是这个诊断..”

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Lua Wilkinson

Lua Wilkinson is a PhD student in Nutrition at Cornell University, where she studies digital social networks to promote maternal and child health globally. As a nutritionist and ethnographer, she researches migration, food systems, economics, technology and anything else that bridges the gap between nutrition and society. She tweets from @LuaWilkinson and maintains a website, www.luawilkinson.com.