Header graphic for print
Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Felony counts filed over tainted lunch

Stephanie Banchero of the Chicago Tribune reported on October 9 that, in an unusual move, federal authorities have indicted a Downstate man on felony charges of conspiracy, transporting uninspected poultry and lying to federal authorities in a 2002 food poisoning incident that sickened more than 100 children and teachers at a Joliet school.

Edward L. Wuebbels of Albers is the third person to be criminally charged in one of the state’s largest school food poisoning outbreaks. Wuebbels could get up to 16 years in prison if convicted on the six felony counts.

Two Illinois State Board of Education employees were indicted last year in the incident at Laraway Elementary School, which sent three dozen pupils to the hospital after they ate ammonia-tainted chicken tenders. Those misdemeanor cases are pending.

Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer who has represented hundreds of children and families in lawsuits over food-borne illnesses, called the indictments “very unusual, but very welcome.”

“It’s about time someone cracked down on these people,” said Marler, whose firm represented 35 pupils and teachers at Laraway School in a civil case that recently was settled for an undisclosed amount. “It is so rare that these people get charged. But in this case, I think it was so egregious that the government had no choice. I applaud them and wish we would see more of this.”

The November 2002 incident at Laraway began when dozens of students ate a school lunch of chicken tenders and green beans. The children immediately began complaining of nausea and some vomited. A strong odor of ammonia was detected in the cafeteria.

The discovery of that the chicken was tainted, which Illinois health officials said showed ammonia contamination of up to 133 times the acceptable level, sent state education officials scurrying to gather up 360 cases of chicken tenders sent to 49 public schools, including 11 in the Chicago area.