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Three children endangered by Palmia school food

"Human error" led to children with allergies being served harmful food.

Kouluruokailua ala-asteen koululla.
Palmia provides food to 164 schools and kindergartens across Finland. Image: Ronnie Holmberg / Yle

Over the last 12 months, three children with food allergies needed to be taken to hospital in separate incidents after developing severe reactions to school meals prepared by the catering company Palmia.

The cases, which occurred in 2019 and 2020, were considered to be life-threatening to each of the children involved and were caused by Palmia staff not following instructions regarding their dietary needs.

Two of the cases occurred in the city of Riihimäki, located about 70 kilometres north of Helsinki, at the Jukola kindergarten and primary school - the first incident was last year, the second in June this year.

The location of the third case has not been publicly revealed.

In addition, there have been several near misses caused by children with allergies being served harmful food at Palmia facilities, but that have not resulted in life-threatening situations.

Two-year-old spent one week on isolation ward

Minna Virtanen told Yle that her son Aapo ate oat yogurt provided by Palmia several times at the Jukola kindergarten in Riihimäki during the autumn of 2019. Aapo is allergic to oats, and the allergy was known to Palmia staff.

In December, Virtanen and her husband sought medical attention for the two-year-old as he was displaying severe allergic symptoms, and a doctor diagnosed that Aapo had developed an infection which required treatment with an intravenous antibiotic.

Aapo spent almost a week on the hospital’s isolation ward.

"I don't think this can be simply put down to human error, because we are not the only ones. There are several parents whose children have had these experiences," Virtanen said of Palmia’s role in the incident, and a formal complaint by parents against the company was lodged with the Regional State Administrative Agency of Southern Finland in June.

Palmia: We made human errors

The three cases that required ambulances to be called were all caused by human error, according to Palmia’s Business Director Pia Julin.

"The aim has been to build a process so that even if one person makes a mistake, the food does not end up with the [allergic] customer. In other words, there must be two mistakes, and unfortunately this has happened," Julin said, adding that the area of special diets has undergone major changes in recent years.

"When we make sausage stew in the central kitchen for example, there are more than 40 different recipes. There are an awful lot of food restrictions for various reasons, and we need to ensure that special attention is paid to high-risk dietary needs," Julin said.

When a child has special dietary requirements, this information is provided to Palmia via a form filled out by parents and then entered into the company’s central database.

However, in the case of the Jukola kindergarten and school in Riihimäki, school staff told Yle that they do not trust Palmia and have to do extra work to ensure that the food is suitable for each child.

Palmia prepares and delivers food to 164 school and kindergarten destinations in southern and southwestern Finland. The company’s meals are also served in nursing homes, service centres and hospitals, as well as in 29 lunch restaurants and cafés. The company also provides security, cleaning and real estate services.

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