PATNA, India – The government announced on Thursday it would set up an inquiry into the quality of food given to school pupils in a nationwide free meal scheme after at least 23 children died in one of the deadliest outbreaks of mass poisoning in years.
Within minutes of eating a meal of rice and potato curry in Bihar on Tuesday, the children began to fall sick, a cook at the school at the centre of the outbreak told Reuters from her hospital bed.
The children, aged four to 12, died after vomiting and convulsing from agonising stomach cramps, officials and relatives said. Death came so quickly for some that they died in their parents’ arms while being taken to hospital.
Dozens of other children are being treated for food poisoning. A local official said 25 children had died, but the toll could not be confirmed.
Police were searching on Thursday for the headmistress of the school in Gandaman village in Bihar, one of India’s most impoverished states, who has disappeared. The school provided free meals under the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, the world’s largest school feeding programme involving 120 million children.
Police said it was not possible to conclusively say what caused the poisoning, but the focus of the investigation was on the oil used in the preparation of the meal.
Doctors treating the children said they suspected the food had been contaminated with insecticide. Media reports said the cooking oil may have been stored in an old pesticide container.
“The minute the children were brought in, we smelled this foul odour of organophosphorous,” said Dr. Vinod Mishra, a doctor in the medical team treating many of the children at Patna Medical College Hospital in Patna.
“It seemed as though it was coming out of their pores. That’s when we prepared the diagnosis for organophosphorous poisoning and it worked. The diagnosis has shown results,” he said.
Organophosphorus compounds are used as pesticides.
“We have made no arrests so far as we are waiting for forensic reports which will help us piece together the entire