A total of 118 schoolchildren in East and West Flanders provinces have been reported to be infected with salmonella, an organism most commonly found in contaminated food, the region’s health agency said. The federal food safety agency has closed down the caterer in Harelbeke who supplies the schools with meals while investigations continue. The first two cases appeared in a school in West Flanders when reported by a hospital in Tielt. Later one school in East Flanders and the remainder in West Flanders also reported cases. The caterer delivers meals to 120 schools, among them 30 pre-schools, the rest being primary schools.
According to the food safety agency, initial enquiries point to contaminated lasagne, which was delivered to all of the schools concerned. “We still have no idea where the contamination came from,” the catering company’s owner, Hervé Vervaeck, said “A specialist firm is coming to decontaminate the whole factory, including the offices.”
The company employs 45 people, and delivers food not only to schools but also to social aid agency homes and other institutions. “The company has been in existence since 1974, and this is the first time something like this has happened,” Vervaeck said. “The impact is enormous, and we hope that the problem can be solved as quickly as possible. If the meals we deliver are at the basis of this infection, I am offering my apologies to the children and their parents.”
The term salmonella refers to two related bacteria, both of which infect the digestive tract and cause food poisoning which can lead to fever and even death. Infection can occur through the ingestion of bacteria from food or water contaminated by the faeces of humans or animals. Experts recommend heating the most hazardous types of food – mainly pork and chicken – to an internal temperature of 75 degrees for at least ten minutes. Initial symptoms include stomach pains, diarrhoea and fever, occurring 12 to 48 hours after consuming the infected food.