More than a year after kindergarten students were sickened from school food, parents say low quality products and those with misleading labels continue to enter Vilnius kindergartens.

VILNIUS, Lithuania—A parents’ group here says unsafe food continues to enter local kindergartens more than a year after students were sickened at the Pipiras School in Central Vilnius. In March 2013, three three-year-old students were rushed to the hospital with diarrhea and headaches, just hours after the school lunch was served.

An investigation conducted by the State Food and Veterinary Service revealed salmonella bacteria, plus “a lack of hygiene in the kindergarten kitchen and products that contained ingredients that shouldn’t be there.” The results didn’t mention specific products or make accusations against the food supplier, the Lithuanian company Pontem.

Then, the 2013 public announcement required that food bound for the city’s pre-schools adhere to basic health standards set by the Agricultural Ministry. It also stipulated that the winning company must have “a three-year turnover of US$12 million plus US$2 million in the bank.” With such high numbers, only one Lithuanian company was eligible, Baskiene says: Pontem. The approximately 800-person company is among the country’s biggest wholesalers of food products and household goods.

“There is a stinky smell of corruption in this story,” Baskiene says. “We have proposed to analyze how the food supplied to kindergartens can be both cheap and nutritious, as Pontem claims it is, and all of our proposals are being ignored. It seems that someone wants to see Pontem as the only company participating in this game.”

Parents also allege that kids receive poor quality food with fraudulent labeling. This past February, a group of parents, along with a state court official, unexpectedly visited a Vilnius kindergarten to gather food samples to be tested at the Lithuanian Food Institute in Kaunas.

Tests revealed that six of the 12 products’ ingredients didn’t match packaging labels and could cause health problems for kids. Milk contained pseudomonas bacteria, suggesting a lack of pasteurization. The “highest quality” sausages contained starch, which goes against state regulations that meat products with “highest quality” labels are prohibited from containing starch. And raspberry jam and dried raisins were found to contain sulfur dioxide, which was not indicated on the ingredient list. According to Lithuania’s Institute of Food and Veterinary Risk Assessment Center, “sulfur dioxide stays in the immune system and can cause various health problems, especially for those with asthma and other allergies.”

Independent nutritionist Vaida Kurpiene says: “We can firmly say that those children got products of lower quality than what was indicated on the packaging.”

“Naturally, a question arises,” says Audrius Murauskas, the head of the Lithuanian parents’ forum who participated in the visit. “Why are the parents paying for breakfast, dinner and supper being cheated and who is benefiting from that?”

In response to the parents’ forum, a Pontem public relations representative wrote in a letter: “The State Food and Veterinary Service hasn’t found any dangerous ingredients or supplements in the supplied products and the Lithuanian Parents Forum investigation was wrongly interpreted.”

Also, in February Potem issued a statement saying that while the food study organized by the parents’ forum was ongoing, “the doubtful quality production is being changed into other producers.”

“Until the manufacturers under suspicion will not demonstrate that their products are quality and meet all the requirements of the law, their products will not reach kindergartens,” said Audronė Tendzegolskienė, Pontem’s director general.

The company rejected concerns that its raisins and jam were suspicious, saying “the levels of sulfur dioxide in raisins found and stated by the Forum of Lithuanian Parents as poisonous is ten times smaller than the allowed rate on the existing legislation.” The only problem with the jam, Pontem said, was insufficient information on the label.

Asta Maminskiene, food inspector for the State Food and Veterinary Service, says Pontem cannot be punished, because it is solely a food supplier, not a producer. Maminskiene says the State Food and Veterinary Service, responsible for the regulation of food safety and quality in kindergartens, can only suggest that Pontem choose companies that produce food with better production standards.

“We can admit that the products checked by the Lithuanian Parents Forum didn’t match requirements,” Maminskiene says, “but they weren’t causing any danger to kids.”

The Vilnius Municipality acknowledged that its poor financial situation has caused it to fall into debt to Pontem.

“The municipality is in bad financial shape and owes debts to various partners, including Pontem,” says Gintaras Alfonsas Petronis, Vilnius’ Head of Municipality Education, Culture and Sports Department.The most effective way to repay the company, he says, is to keep it in business as the food supplier.

He says the annual expense of providing food products to kindergartens is US $9 million. Pontem is also flexible with intermittent money transfer delays, he adds.

Others see possible corruption in dealings with Pontem. The municipality’s 2014 public procurement agreement, to be made effective this fall, was cancelled before signing. According to the National Public Procurement Service, the financial requirements for the winner were recognized as discriminating and intentionally limiting the competition, which is a violation to the law. The Service is currently revising procurement requirements.

As it waits for the results, the Lithuanian parents’ forum says it is doubtful that a new public procurement will change safety rules.

“The current system of public procurements in Lithuania is doomed to fail,” Audrius says. “The main criteria is always the lower price, which only makes it easier to manipulate the rules and elect the winner, giving a cheaper but not necessarily better service for the price we are paying.”

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