Contaminated school lunches are believed to have triggered a recent outbreak of diarrhea and vomiting among some 6,700 schoolchildren in Germany. The Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the federal body responsible for disease control and prevention in Germany, says that the cases have been reported over the last four days in the eastern states of Berlin, Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia.
The RKI, the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment and the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety are investigating the cause of the outbreak and are expected to release their findings Friday afternoon. In the meantime, several schools in eastern Germany have opted to stay closed as a precautionary measure, according to the dapd news agency.
All schools where the outbreak has occurred are likely to have received food from a single catering company, Sodexo, indicating it was a food-borne illness such as a norovirus, the RKI said.
Stephan Dürholt, Sodexo's spokesman, has played down the connection. "Less than 5 percent of the schools we supply have been affected," he told the dapd.
Meanwhile, Sodexo CEO Horst de Haan told the mass-circulation daily Bild that tests had been done on the company's meals. "There is nothing to suggest that this outbreak is a result of our food or was passed on by a member of our staff working in the kitchens," he said.
Many experts complain that school lunches are simply too cheap to be of an acceptable standard.
The Association of School Caterers in Berlin and Brandenburg, of which Sodexo is a member, was launched in early 2012 to raise awareness of the problem.
"We founded our organization against a backdrop of rising costs and reduced budgets," association head Rolf Hoppe told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "We want to make sure that our voice is heard."
In March, Berlin's six main school caterers joined forces and agreed to boycott tenders until the city-state's government boosts subsidies for school meals.
"Budgets in Berlin are simply not realistic," Hoppe says.
In fact, he says he isn't surprised by the current outbreak. "The way things currently stand, all caterers are forced to buy the cheapest food possible because they have no choice," Hoppe says. "Of course they can't always buy high-quality produce."
A study published in September finds that at least 1 ($1.30) more needs to be spent per portion on school meals to meet quality standards set by the German Nutrition Society (DGE).
The report, conducted by the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, was commissioned by the Berlin Senate Administration for Education, Youth and Science and AOK, one of Germany's largest health insurance providers.
The cost per portion of a school meal should be between 3.17 and 4.25, the researchers concluded.
"In Berlin," Hoppe says, "it's more like 2.10 to 2.50 per meal."