At least 29 pupils at San Jose Elementary School in Magini, Bohol, Philippines died of likely cyanide poisoning on Wednesday after eating carmelized cassava roots. Health officials said 50 pupils are in critical condition, and at least 100 students became ill with food poisoning after being served the sweetened cassava roots at school. Cassava plant species are known to produce cyanide when ingested, but if the roots are cooked properly before they are eaten, they are non-toxic.
School food poisoning is not uncommon. For decades, health officials have reported outbreaks of illness among students throughout the world that have been served school lunches and snacks that made them sick. In the last ten years, children in United States schools have been served foods containing such pathogens as E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella, and toxic chemicals such as anhydrous ammonia. A 2003 study published by the US General Accounting Office (GAO) reported that half of school-related food poisoning was caused by poor preparation techniques by foodservice workers.
“In this most recent instance in the Philippines, it is clear that proper preparation techniques were not used,” said William Marler, an attorney with Marler Clark who represents victims of food poisoning. “In countries where cassava is eaten, there is a known risk of serving this root when it is under-cooked. One wonders why it was allowed in the school to begin with.”
“Parents around the world send their children to school every day without second-guessing that the food they eat will be safe. But reality is, we all need to take a second look at what our kids are being served at school,” Marler concluded.