Bells Produce is under fire for supplying students at Kaitaia College with raw chicken in their lunches. Photo / Supplied
The Far North school lunch provider that served up raw chicken to Kaitāia College students, causing some to end up in accident and emergency, has been stood down while the Ministry of Education investigates the incident.
Seventeen students were reported as having food poisoning symptoms after eating raw chicken for lunch on March 8.
As furious parents tend to their sick children, there are claims by a current student who attends the school that raw meat has been on the menu before.
Year 12 student Lennox Goodhue-Wikitera said similar incidents had happened “a few times”, including last year, when uncooked meatballs were served.
“The quality of lunches isn’t good either. Kids don’t want to eat them, they just throw them out, so it creates a lot of waste.
“It’s disappointing it’s taken two years [for something to be] done about it. It should have been done a long time before this.”
The lunches were supplied by Bells Produce, a specialty foods company owned by Te Rūnanga o Te Rarawa, under the Ministry of Education’s Healthy Lunches in Schools initiative.
Ministry of Education operations and integration leader Sean Teddy said MPI was investigating, and Bells Produce was working with them.
Te Whatu Ora Public Health Service in Te Tai Tokerau is also investigating the incident from a public health perspective.
“The Ministry of Education stood down Bells Produce from providing school lunches until their investigation is complete,” Teddy said.
“We have another supplier taking over the delivery of lunches from today [Thursday] while the investigation is under way.
“We have not been notified of any other incidents at this time.”
On Wednesday, Maria Parsons, mother of 14-year-old Ben, said he vomited three times at school after eating some chicken tenders.
Another mum posted on social media that her daughter was taken to the accident and emergency department with food poisoning.
“I literally had a staff member from Kaitāia College visit me at home to let me know,” she wrote.
“I am fuming. If you were having a sh** day or just didn’t want to go to work this morning, you should have just walked out. I feel sad for you.”
Kaitāia College principal Louise Anaru said students were immediately asked to stop eating the chicken over the intercom and report to the office if they had symptoms like stomach cramps, vomiting, or diarrhea.
“Accordingly, three students reported symptoms and were picked up by their caregivers/whānau.
“Seventeen students in total have been reported as having food poisoning symptoms, with one student confirmed to have sought medical advice from their local GP.
“We have no reports of students in hospital at this point in time.
“The school will continue to contact whānau to ensure we have accurate data to support the investigation moving forward and to continue to support our students’ wellbeing.”
Anaru said the Ministry of Education last year approved Kaitāia College’s application to run its own lunch programme from the school canteen.
“We expect this to be up and running by Term 3,” she said.
But Goodhue-Wikitera said the school lunch scheme hasn’t been popular with students for ages, and last year they protested, asking for the canteen to be brought back.
“Nothing happened about it,” he said.
Bells Produce has launched its own investigation into how raw chicken came to be in the lunches.
Te Rūnanga o Te Rarawa chief executive George Riley said he was yet to speak to Bells staff.
That uncooked food had been served before was “news to me”, he said.
“The incident was more than unfortunate. If anyone were to contract illness from raw chicken, with a high risk of campylobacter and other serious food-borne diseases, that is untenable.”
112 Te Tai Tokerau schools and kura currently participate in the Healthy School Lunches programme.
It was launched by the Government in 2019, initially for primary and intermediate students in schools across the Bay of Plenty/Waiariki, Hawke’s Bay/Tairāwhiti and Otago/Southland.
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the programme was expanded to include secondary school students.
Schools and kura can decide whether to make their own lunches or outsource to an external supplier.
Bells Produce has been approached for comment.