A vendor for the School Feeding Programme is being linked to at least one case of food poisoning at a primary school in the Northern school district.
It is alleged that improper handling of fish resulted in a student at St Patrick Anglican School falling ill some weeks ago.
The Ministry of Education initially said that they had no knowledge of the incident but further investigations carried out by THE NEW TODAY revealed that only two schools in the entire district did not receive spoiled fish from that particular vendor.
THE NEW TODAY was also able to confirm the young student at the St Patrick Anglican School had to receive medical attention after eating fish from the school’s lunch programme.
We were able to find out from people close to the situation that the vendor in question uses improper methods to handle the fish and instead of delivering frozen packaged products to the schools he cuts and packages unfrozen fish at each site without proper storage.
According to our sources another vendor, Rad’s The Fish Mongers, who supply fish to multiple school districts from St George’s North West to Carriacou had the St Patrick schools taken away in favour of a new supplier who lacks the proper cutting, packaging and storage facilities.
After the food poisoning incident in March, Rad’s was asked by the Head of the programme to resume supplying the district while the vendor linked to the bad fish was transferred to St Andrew.
“By the time the schools got the fish it was a bag of blood,” our source explained.
We were informed that it was suggested to the schools that the fish should be fried to see if the children could consume it that way.
“When the children bite the fish it’s as if the fish-biting them back,” was the complaint from a Cook in one school.
Apart from the one child who had to receive medical attention, several others across the district suffered mouth irritation after consuming the spoiled fish.
The Ministry of Education runs the programme and for $1.00 a day students are provided with a meal at lunchtime.
Supplies are not procured by one central authority and this raises questions about quality control for food products used to prepare meals at the various schools across the country.
Before the fish incident reached the public domain, there had been another involving rice that was spoiling and contained insects. At the time there was also a denial from the Ministry.
When THE NEW TODAY contacted Education Minister Emmalin Pierre about this new incident, she denied having any knowledge of it, adding that if such a thing had occurred there would have been a report from the school principal.
Permanent Secretary for Education, Norman Gilbert also responded to the claims of food poisoning and the issues surrounding the change of fish supplier.
In a written response, sent through the Minister of Education, he said the change was part of the reorganising procurement procedures but he denied that there was any incident related to food poisoning.
“The claim of food poisoning and increase in rate of payment for purchase of fish is totally false. The Ministry of Education has been decentralising its school feeding services to avoid storage and distribution challenges as well as to improve on compliance with the financial procurement requirement for procuring services”.
“As a result of the above mentioned, the approach has been to as far as possible provide services per school district. Therefore, as in the case of fish, there was a supplier who had three districts and now has two while a new contractor was given one district to supply. The ministry has not removed any of the two previous suppliers of fish but has adjusted the district supplied by the contractors engaged.
“The Ministry has been working closely with the Procurement Unit to even further improve compliance with the request for provision of services in accordance with the regulations in the new school term – September 2021.”
A few days later the Permanent Secretary, in an interview with THE NEW TODAY, said he was later made aware of the food poisoning incident.
He said the diagnosis was an allergic reaction but they are not absolutely sure that it was as a result of the fish being spoiled.
However, our source said the schools protested and demanded that the old supplier be returned because the children “were afraid to eat fish” after the incident.
We understand that the new vendor continues to use the same improper methods to handle the fish which he supplies to the schools, raising concerns that there could be other dangerous incidents in the future.
Gilbert said the incident in March is not an isolated one and they have had complaints in the past of problems with fish supplied by another of the two contractors currently employed.
“We have always had minor concerns with fish supplied by both vendors,” he said.
The Permanent Secretary said they have had conversations with both suppliers regarding the importance of providing good quality fish.
“For all the fish vendors, because of the sensitive nature of fish, we have been talking to our vendors because we would have some instances when fish goes bad,” he remarked.
He expressed confidence that there would be no further incidents in the future.
“We are confident that we will get nothing but the best quality”.
Since the incident, officials from the lunch programme have not done site visits to any of the suppliers to determine whether they are sufficiently equipped to supply food for the programme but Gilbert said it is likely to happen.
He admitted that they are not aware of the handling methods used by the vendor who has been linked to the food poisoning.
He said they are now looking at issues related to packaging, storage and reuse of defrosted fish.
“We do recognise that there is a need for closer monitoring (of suppliers). We will be engaging our suppliers again to ensure better quality,” he added.
Gilbert went on to say that the problem may not always be with the vendors but may be related to how the product is handled after it reaches the school such as refreezing after thawing and then being used at a later date.
In order to reduce the risk, Gilbert said there may be a need for smaller packages to allow the Cooks more flexibility, especially since students seem to favour other foods such as chicken, over fish.
Gilbert also said the Ministry of Education has not discussed nor plans to change the current allocation or supplier contracts for fish.
“I don’t think we have had a conversation about taking away any of our contractors. We are decentralising while keeping in line with procurement rules,” he told THE NEW TODAY.
When purchases in excess of $15, 000 have to be made the rule is that it is put out for public bid.
“If it is above $15, 000 we need to ensure that everyone has a fair opportunity to bid,” he said.
According to Gilbert, the Ministry has decentralised the purchasing of all supplies needed for the school feeding programme, including dry goods, meat and fish.