Lunch cooked, packed under unhygienic conditions 9-hours before mealtime

Main food supplier ‘untouchable’ due to alleged political connections
By Chris Kamalendran

Preliminary investigations into last Sunday’s mass food poisoning in Talawakele have revealed that the parcels of food were prepared at least eight hours before the meals were consumed, mostly by schoolchildren.

Nearly 600 students from three schools in Talawakele were admitted to hospital, after consuming the meals distributed at an event to mark International Children’s Day, organised by a local non governmental organization (NGO).

Some of the children at the Dickoya Base hopital.
Pix by T. Perumal

Talawakele Public Health Inspector- R.R.S. Medawala told the Sunday Times that the local NGO had given the food supply order to an estate welfare officer, who in turn had organized a group of people to prepare the meals.

“The food had been prepared in a small hut within the school premises. It appears that, since the contract was for some 1,000 food parcels, the wrapping of the parcels had started as early as 3.00 am,” he said.

He said that the parcel contained rice, two curries with a boiled egg, and it was mostly likely that the egg had spoiled by the time the children ate the food. Though the children who partook of the meals at the school premises, started showing signs of illness after 12 noon, others had been falling ill earlier. This was because some of the teachers had taken away food parcels early and distributed among their family members before the function.

“When I rushed to the scene there was panic, as the number who had fallen ill was high. We were finding it difficult to get the children to hospital. They had to be sent to four different hospitals to prevent the hospitals from becoming overcrowded,” he added.

At the hospitals, some of the wards were overcrowded with four to five children to one bed.
The children had been vomiting and complaining of stomach pains, while some were also suffering from diarrhoea.

He said that samples were collected and sent to the Medical Research Institute and Government Analyst for further investigations. Four principals were arrested after the Provincial Education Minister Anusha Sivaraja complained that prior approval had not been sought from the zonal education director to have the particular function on a holiday. They were given bail later.

Anxious parents crowding the hospital

“We have decided not to allow functions in any schools without the approval of the zonal education director,” Ms Sivaraja told the Sunday Times. The cook also was arrested and remanded for two weeks.
However, the main food supplier, who is reported to have connections to a minister, was not taken into custody, the Sunday Times learns.

NGO officials also were questioned about the incident, but no arrests were made. Investigations revealed that T-Field Child Development Federation had organised the function and given the food contract to a local supplier.

They were funded by ChildFund International USA – a non-stock, non-profit corporation.
National Director- ChildFund, Guru Naik told the Sunday Times that the local partner, which is a community based organization, submit projects and are funded on an annual basis.

“We are very concerned about this incident. We were lucky that there were no loss of lives. But we are concerned about the people who suffered. We have issued a strict warning to the local NGO”, he said.
“We will go to the extent of stopping the funding, if such incidents happen again”, he said.A cross section of the parents whose children were hospitalized, told the Sunday Times that the event was poorly organized, and the food prepared under unhygienic conditions.

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