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Crooks profit from pupils' diet of worms

FORGET the chargrilled polenta. Italian cuisine may be the choice of Britain's restaurant cognoscenti, but it's not very popular in Milan's school dining rooms.

For years pupils complained that a Milanese lunchtime meant rotten apples, gristly meat and, a particular triumph, rice infested with worms - only no one would believe them.

Until now. Twenty-two people have just been arrested, allegedly members of a secret cartel that made hundreds of thousands of pounds. They include a wholesaler from the town's general food market, school caterers, and a bevy of local council officials.

The school dinners, which are usually pre-cooked by outside caterers, were never very popular and over the past few years Milan parents have joined with their children in protests about the plummeting quality of the food.

However, letters to the papers, and even a detailed 1997 police report on the poor quality of the meals, came to nothing.

The racket only came to light when a diary was found in a town hall office. It contained cryptic allusions to food prices and a list of functionaries who had to be paid.

The diary, carelessly left behind by the wholesaler, was partially deciphered by a vigile urbano (administrative police officer) and taken to investigating magistrates at the town's tribunal.

It was the same tribunal which only a few years ago sealed the fate of the then ruling political Socialist and Christian Democrat parties when it uncovered multi-million pound mechanisms for illicit financing of the parties.

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