India faces another mass food poisoning

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(CNN) – Another mass food poisoning case has been reported in India. At least 23 students in the southwestern coastal state of Goa were treated at a hospital after they were sickened during lunch, police said.

Earlier this week, 23 students died and 25 people were hospitalized from food poisoning during a school lunch in northern India’s Bihar state.

Two children of the chef at the Indian school where pupils were poisoned at lunch were among those who died, CNN’s sister network CNN-IBN reported.

Lal Babu Rai, husband of the school cook, Manju Devi, told CNN-IBN reporter Prabhakar Kumar that three of their children got sick during the meal. Along with the two dead, the other remains in the hospital, he said.

At least 23 students died and 25 are hospitalized after they were sickened while eating a lunch of rice and potatoes at the primary school in India’s Bihar state on Tuesday.

The incident — which occurred in India’s poorest state — shines the light on food safety and has prompted discussion on how to improve school food programs amid news that authorities warned of safety problems with Bihar’s school meal program months ago.

The incident was a parent’s worst nightmare in the poverty-stricken community. The students, who authorities said were between the ages of 5 and 12, started vomiting soon after their first bite of lunch. Some fainted.

The parents of at least three children have buried their lost ones near the school — one right in front of the building, according to CNN journalists who saw the burial mounds.

Demonstrations have popped up around the area as people seek answers about how this tragedy could have happened. One news video showed men apparently attacking a school bus with sticks. Others gathered together and held signs. Students at nearby schools refused to eat. A group that supplies lunches to schools in the Chhapra district of Patna was attacked.

At present, it’s unclear whether the children were intentionally or accidentally poisoned. An investigation into the tragedy is under way. Police told CNN that investigators have been unable to find the headmistress of the school in order to question her, and authorities were questioning the cook, also hospitalized in the tragedy.

But officials believe the poison was an organophosphorus compound, a type of chemical that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is commonly used in agriculture.

It’s a nerve agent related to sarin gas, which is used in chemical warfare, the U.S. Health Department says. Exposure to a high dose can cause an irregular heartbeat, difficulty breathing, paralysis and seizures.

Bihar state Education Minister P.K. Shahi said the children were poisoned by an insecticide that was in the food. Shahi said he heard reports that the cook had questioned the quality of the oil she was supposed to use, but was overruled by the school’s headmistress.

“The information which has come to me indeed suggests that the headmistress was told by the cook that medium of cooking was not proper, and she suspected the quality of the oil,” Shahi said. “But the headmistress rebuked her, and chastised the children, and forced them to continue the meal.”

According to the Indian government’s figures, nearly half of India’s children suffer from malnutrition of some sort. Since a landmark Supreme Court decision in 2001, all government schools in India have been required to provide free meals to students younger than 13.

Shahi told the state has been working “to improve the quality and … try to get good food served,” he told CNN.

“However, the challenge is still there because the magnitude of this program is so huge that there are a number of challenges.” He said those challenges are at least partly financial.

“Even though I would unhesitatingly admit that there are some quality issues before us, this is the first incident which has happened in the state,” Shahi said. “In the past, we have received complaints regarding quality, but the incident of this nature … has really shocked us — shocked the entire state.”

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