Lizards in Food, and 3 Other Reasons for Tragedies Like the School Lunch Deaths

Mass malnutrition, poor government oversight, and lax food safety still plague India
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Indian children who fell sick after eating a free school lunch lie at a hospital in Patna, India, on July 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Aftab Alam Siddiqui)

First, the students complained that the food tasted odd. Then, they began vomiting. Now, 25 children are dead and dozens more are hospitalized after eating a lunch laced with insecticides in the Indian state of Bihar.

Officials believe the food contained traces of a phosphate used on rice and wheat crops to ward off insects.

This is unfortunately not an isolated incident: People die in India of food poisoning and other avoidable causes with relative frequency. In 2010, the Lancet found that 60 percent of child deaths there could have been avoided.

It's still unclear whether the food was intentionally or unintentionally contaminated, but there are three challenges that Indian government programs face which often play a role in these kinds of catastrophes.

1) Unsanitary conditions in many areas

In a separate incident this week, 50 children fell ill after eating school lunches at a different school, and there was a lizard discovered in the food. In the past, frogs, insects, and other creatures have been found in children's government-provided meals.

Much of India still has problems with basic sanitation. The country's bad roads mean it can take a long time for food to reach rural areas, increasing the likelihood of the food spoiling in the process. Refrigeration and food storage also leave something to be desired -- it's possible the lunch was stored next to the chemicals and was cross-contaminated somehow, explained Michael Kugelman, an India expert at the Wilson Center in Washington.

2) Corruption and a lack of oversight

Theft and corruption in anti-poverty programs is a widespread problem. Last year, Bloomberg discovered that $14.5 billion in food aid was pilfered by corrupt politicians in the state of Uttar Pradesh and sold to local traders at market rates. The New York Times noted that NGOs charged with executing charity efforts like the lunch program often cut corners to save money. In this case, the school's head apparently "fled" the school after the contamination was discovered, which, at best, gives the appearance of impropriety.

India's weak government oversight also means that lax food safety sometimes goes unpunished.

"You can have situations where a food inspector will come to a food prep area and cite someone for violating policies and hygiene, but they can be paid off and will go away, and people will be preparing food as they used to," Kugelman said.

3) The scale of the operation

Much of India's population struggles to find enough food -- almost a billion people there eat less than the government recommends, and 21 percent of all adults and almost half of all children under 5 are malnourished.

The school-lunch program, which was enacted with the goal of reducing malnutrition, sought to feed 120 million children -- a herculean task for any nation, but especially so for one that still lacks strong government monitoring. As the the exasperated minister of human resource development in Bihar told the New York Times:

"It is just not possible to taste meals in all the 73,000 schools before children eat the food."

***

I asked Kugelman if incidents like this mean India isn't the rapidly-modernizing "success story" we're always hearing about.

Not necessarily, he said, but "this amplifies one of the most important realities in India today -- for all of its successes and achievements over the last 20 years, it's still a developing, extremely impoverished country in which modernity has not become all-inclusive."

This time last year, India was hit by a massive power outage that impacted 670 million people, becoming largest blackout in history and a symbol of government negligence and poor infrastructure.

"It just shows that for all the progress that's been made," Kugelman said, "There's a long way to go."

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Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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