RACINE, Wis. — Students at Starbuck Middle School stumbled through the halls just after lunch on Oct. 31, 2007, holding their bellies and moaning. When the vomiting began, teachers knew that it wasn't a Halloween prank.
By midafternoon, almost 70 children waited outside the nurse's office at the school near Milwaukee. "There were so many kids there, it was like, 'Holy cow!' " recalls Michael Hannes, then a seventh-grader who felt "like someone kept punching me in the stomach."
Days would pass before local health officials determined that the tortillas served at Starbuck and four other schools in Racine were to blame for 101 illnesses. An Internet search showed them the stunning particulars: The company that supplied the tortillas had a long history of making children sick.
Before the illnesses in Racine, flour tortillas from Chicago's Del Rey Tortilleria caused similar outbreaks at more than a dozen schools in two other states — in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006. In 2006, Del Rey recalled tens of thousands of tortillas after health officials linked them to illnesses at schools in Massachusetts and Illinois. And in a 2006 study of prior outbreaks, a panel of top scientists with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration even offered this warning: "Flour tortillas manufactured by Del Rey hold the potential to cause illness."
Despite the concerns, the FDA never shared the panel's warning with school officials anywhere.
"That just blows my mind," says Dana Maldonado, the Racine district's food services coordinator, who first learned what the government knew about Del Rey tortillas from USA TODAY. "We absolutely would not have used them had we known."
Not until earlier this year — almost six years after the first outbreaks in Massachusetts — did the government temporarily shut down Del Rey to make the company fix its sanitation and safety problems. No more outbreaks linked to Del Rey products have been reported.
The story of how food with a history of making kids sick continued to get into schools illustrates broad failures in government programs meant to provide safe, quality meals for America's children, a USA TODAY investigation found. Parents and schools often have no idea where the food comes from. They know even less about the safety records of the companies that supply it. And if they try to find out, they face government roadblocks that put the rights of manufacturers ahead of providing information that could protect children.
Early next year, Congress will consider ways to improve the Child Nutrition Act, the law that governs school meal programs. The debate holds special meaning for the 31 million kids who rely each day on the government to feed them. Because of their size and developing immune systems, children are particularly susceptible to food-borne illnesses, and the risks they face are more than hypothetical.
USA TODAY analyzed food-borne illness cases logged by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 1998 and 2007, the last year for which data were available. The newspaper found more than 470 outbreaks at schools during that period. Those outbreaks sickened at least 23,000 children, and the foods responsible — pasta, chicken tenders, turkey and chocolate milk, among others — are lunchroom staples.