BENNINGTON -- A student at Bennington Elementary School discovered there were bugs in the rice being served at lunchtime Thursday.
School Principal James Law said the student brought the bugs to the attention of a staff member during the last lunch period of the day. The kitchen stopped serving hot lunches immediately and discovered bugs in the bag of rice being used for that day's meals.
"We are in the process of making sure all the right people know what happened," said Law when contacted by The Banner Friday afternoon. The matter was reported to The Abbey Group, which provides food service to the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, and to the Vermont Agency of Education Food Distribution Program, which in turn notified the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Law said he does not know what kind of bugs they were, or how many children may have eaten the rice, which was part of the hot meal option for that day. Law learned of the matter late in the school day and quickly wrote a letter to parents notifying them.
"We do all we can to prevent it, and we want to make sure it doesn't happen again," he said.
All of the rice purchased for the SVSU will be disposed of, said Maureen O'Neil, southern Vermont food director for The Abbey Group. She said there are 25 cases, each with 24 bags, with a bag containing two pounds of rice. Each bag will be inspected prior to disposal to determine how widespread the bug contamination is.
Shaftsbury Elementary School, Pownal Elementary School, Molly Stark Elementary School, Bennington Elementary School, Woodford Elementary School, Monument Elementary School, Mount Anthony Union Middle School, and Mount Anthony Union High School are within the SVSU.
SVSU Superintendent Catherine McClure said there have been no reports of bug problems from any of the other schools.
O'Neil said the bugs are small and black, but she does not know what species they are. Rice is rinsed before being used, O'Neil said, because small pieces of dirt from the harvesting process can get into the package. Based on reports she had heard from the Bennington Elementary kitchen staff, the bugs were not visible in the uncooked rice.
"Our kitchen handled it very well," she said. "They did an awesome job of dealing with it."
If it is determined that the contamination is the fault of the rice manufacturer, The Abbey Group can receive credit for the lost product from the USDA.
Because The Abbey Group participates in the National School Lunch Program, which allows some students free or reduced lunches, it can buy commodities at a lower cost through the USDA. She said a case of rice weighing 48 pounds costs the company $8, whereas a case 25 pounds would cost it about $29 normally.
Rosie Krueger, USDA food consultant for the Child Nutrition Program at the Vermont Agency of Education, said the rice in question is produced by Gulf Pacific Rice Co., based in Houston, Texas. The warehousing company that stores it is Reinhart Foodservice LLC, which is a national company with a location in Colchester.
The Gulf Pacific rice in the Reinhart warehouse has been set aside, Krueger said, and will be checked for bugs. She said it is not known how widespread the bug problem is, and it may be limited to just the Bennington Elementary School. "We take complaints like this seriously," she said.
Notice has been sent to Vermont schools who use that brand of rice, she said.
Jimmie Turner, of the USDA Public Affairs Office, said the agency is investigating the matter.
The Banner shared the story on its Facebook page Friday and drew a number of responses:
"My issue is not that they were found but they were not found by staff prior to cooking and serving," wrote Facebook user, Louise McClay.
Some people complained of not receiving any note from the school. McClure said that Law learned of the issue late in the school day and had limited time to investigate and write a notification.
A second letter was sent home with students on Friday, this one from O'Neil on behalf of the Abbey Group. "Please be assured this was an isolated instance and the Abbey Group continues to offer nutritious quality products and service," she wrote. "The health and well being of every student is of utmost importance to us and we will continue to serve the schools with this in mind."
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.