A New Addition to the School Lunch Menu: E. Coli

Contaminated pizza products may have been served at cafeterias, despite nationwide recall.

Rich Products Corp.’s recalled Pepperoni Pizzatas may have been served to students. (Photo: Carolyn Taylor Photography/Getty Images)

Apr 9, 2013· 1 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Officials at Harford County schools in Maryland weren’t taking any chances. After discovering their schoolchildren had inadvertently been served Rich Products Corp.’s Pepperoni Pizzatas—a pizza product that may have been contaminated with a rare strain of E. coli—they reached out directly to parents with the information and instructions on what symptoms to look for in their children.

Rich Products initially announced a voluntary recall of some products on March 28 over contamination concerns, but by April 4, they had expanded the list to include all products produced at its Waycross, Georgia, plant with “Best By” dates ranging from January 1, 2013 to September 29, 2014. Included in that expanded recall? The Pepporoni Pizzatas served to schoolchildren earlier in the week.

In a follow-up letter sent home to parents, school officials listed possible symptoms associated with consumption of contaminated food products, including diarrhea and abdominal pain, but made it clear that as of Friday, April 5, no cases of illnesses had yet been reported.

In the meantime, the USDA updated their recall list, saying the expanded recall affects 10.5 million pounds of food.

As of Friday, the CDC reports that 27 people have become infected in this outbreak (several have been hospitalized), stretching across 15 states. The majority of them (81 percent) are under the age of 21, and two people have developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure. So far, no deaths have been reported.

According to Seattle attorney William Marler, who specializes in food safety cases, E. coli O121 is a strain that likely wouldn’t have been noticed two years ago. Unfortunately, not all laboratories are testing for E. coli beyond the O157 strains.

“I think given that it’s O121—that it’s likely we’re missing a lot of people,” Marler tells TakePart. “I would say this outbreak is really much larger and probably by a factor of 10. This isn’t a regional outbreak. It’s a nationwide outbreak. I think we’ll see the number [of those who become ill] increase. If O121 were more readily tested, this outbreak would number a couple of hundred people, unfortunately.”

According to the Associated Press, Rich Products Corp. recalled ten million pounds of food, but said the company believes as much as three million pounds may still be in the marketplace—and that 300,000 may have been served at school lunches.