Why were 1,300 kids in the Philippines hospitalized after eating candy?

Police are investigating a group of vendors after more than 1,000 students fell ill from eating fruit-flavored sweets Friday.

Romeo Ranoco/Reuters/File
Children queue for a free meal during a feeding program by outreach group World Mission Community Care at a slum area in the Baseco compound in metro Manila, July 2014.

Schoolchildren in a southern Philippine province buying cheap, fruit-flavored sweets on their lunch breaks didn’t realize they’d soon be spending the weekend in hospital.

A group of private vendors is being investigated after the students fell sick after eating candy hawked from a van, the provincial governor told Agence France-Presse Saturday, illuminating again concerns about food safety in the country.

On Friday, at least 1,080 elementary and high school students in the Surigao del Sur province were taken to the hospital after complaining of nausea, diarrhea, and headaches, an official told The Associated Press. They lived in Tandag, the provincial capital, and the towns of Cagwait, Tago, Bayabas, and Marihatag.

Overnight, the number surged – to as many as 1,350 children from nine towns, Surigao del Sur Gov. Johnny Pimentel told AFP on Saturday. He said that 250 students remained in the hospital but were expected to be discharged later in the day.

Nine men and women, suspected of selling the tainted sweets, have been arrested, Gov. Pimentel said. Local news outlet GMA Network reported that among those arrested are “seven out-of-school youths.”

While the sellers have denied any intention of causing food poisoning, the police are testing samples of the durian, mango, and mangosteen-flavored sweets to determine whether they were laced with poison or simply past their expiration date. 

But Mr. Pimentel told AFP that authorities were suspicious about the fact that the group had purportedly traveled some 190 miles from their home province just to sell sweets.

“The suspects had a plan to sell only to school children,” he declared. “They went around nine towns the whole day selling candies.”

Even today, the problem of food safety in the Philippines is largely blamed on a lack of enforcement. Tap water is often undrinkable, and food sold by street vendors is still classified as unsafe by the US Center for Disease Control.

It wasn’t until February that the Philippine government signed a key enforcement bill that promised to strengthen consumer protection as part of the Food Safety Act of 2013, reported the Xinhua newspaper.

But just weeks ago, President Benigno Aquino III sought to quell the international community’s reservations about regulation, telling livestock industry stakeholders from more than a dozen countries that the nation has a solid performance record, reported the GMA Network.

In addition to improving food safety laws, such as the country's official meat inspection standards, the government plans to pour money into expanding agriculture and make the Philippines a major meat exporter, said President Aquino at the Livestock Philippines Expo.

“As you know, the Philippines has been performing very well in terms of food safety,” said the president, citing the country’s eradication of the Avian Flu and Foot and Mouth Disease as examples. “It is really a blessing to be in this country that we don’t have to worry about the safety of the food we eat in terms of its quality.”

Meanwhile, Wendy Aquino, who represents Wendy’s Durian Candy, the company implicated in Friday’s incident, issued a formal apology Saturday to the schoolchildren, reported local news site Rappler.

“We're really sorry to those who were poisoned. We would never do that. We have fear in God,” said Ms. Aquino.

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