In October 2010, local health inspectors in Meriden found rodent droppings in the cafeteria of Maloney High School, as well as dirty cabinets and other health violations. Inspectors didn’t go back last year to check to see if the problems were remedied.
In Stamford last year, nine of 32 schools did not have their cafeterias inspected, with the remaining schools inspected fewer than the three times a year required under state regulations.
A similar situation occurred in New Haven, where many schools did not get the required inspections. One school, Nathan Hale School, had an inspection in March that found chicken was being served to children at a temperature that can carry bacteria. Inspectors did not go back to the school to re-inspect until December, when they found the same problem.
“There is no way we are meeting the state mandate on inspections,’’ acknowledged Paul Kowalski, New Haven’s environmental health director. “I have three sanitarians and over 1,100 food establishments to inspect.”
A C-HIT review of more than 1,700 inspection reports from 103 cities and towns in 2010 found that many local health agencies, responsible for ensuring that school cafeterias are safely preparing and serving food to children, are not meeting the state Public Health Code on mandated annual inspections. Of the 38 health agencies overseeing those towns, at least half were not meeting the state requirement, the review shows.
In addition to failing to meet the required number of inspections, the review found that timely re-inspections of cafeterias cited for violations were rare.
Also, the state Department of Public Health has not taken steps to proactively enforce state requirements on local health departments, but instead investigates complaints.
As a result, Connecticut parents know less they should about the way that food in schools is prepared and served, food safety experts said.
“We think inspections are a critical control point in controlling food borne illness,” said Sarah Klein, staff attorney for the Food Safety Program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, DC. “We see the control of food borne illness as something that has preventive steps and reactive steps. Inspections are part of the prevention.”
Budget, Staff Cuts, Reasons For Non-Compliance
Under state regulations, school cafeterias are to be inspected by local health departments one to four times a year, depending on how they are classified. A majority are classified as a three or a four requiring three or four inspections yearly.
While some towns—such as Manchester, Cromwell, Meriden, and the Naugatuck Valley Health District and the Central Connecticut Health District,—are in compliance, dozens of others are not, the review found. Budget cuts, shrinking staff and a growing number of inspection responsibilities are among the key reasons that local departments cite for not meeting the inspection requirements.
Among the towns and districts not meeting the requirements in 2010 are: Hartford, New Haven, Stamford, Stonington, Waterbury, West Hartford-Bloomfield and the Ledge Light Health District, which covers New London County among others.
In Stamford, Ronald Miller, an environmental health inspector for city’s health department said, “We try our best to inspect the schools at least twice a year. We are not in compliance.’‘
Last year, the Stamford department lost two inspectors, and was down two more inspectors because of leaves of absence. “We have so many mandates, we can’t make this work,’’ said Miller. “We are just overwhelmed.’’
In New Haven, Kowalski said he was just trying to hang on to the staff he has, citing a long list of department responsibilities, including daycare inspections, responding to public nuisance complaints, inspecting 24 public pools, and doing education and outreach on West Nile virus.
Stonington town sanitarian Karen Weiss was similarly blunt: “We haven’t kept up with the inspections in the last couple of years. There are just not enough bodies. . . I talk to health inspectors across the state, and food service is one of the first things to slide as budgets are cut.”
Parents, meanwhile, assume that schools are being properly inspected.
“The fact that they aren’t inspecting the school cafeterias and that parents are uninformed is bad,’’ said Tashema Nichols, whose son attends a New Haven school.
High Scores Often Hide Serious Violations
The inspection reports gathered by C-HIT showed violations ranging from evidence of rodents and insects, to no hot water at the hand-wash sink, to no sneeze guards at the serving area, to dirty floors and walls.
Four-point violations are the most serious, and were noted in at least 100 schools in 2010. Improper food temperatures, food stored improperly, and hand washing facilities not working are among the four-point violations.
Perfect scores of 100 were given to about 200 schools in 2010. A majority of the school inspection reports showed scores in the 90s.
But in addition to lags in meeting inspection requirements, the system of scoring can camouflage some serious violations, the C-HIT review found. Schools with ratings in the 90s could have one or two four-point deductions, the records show. McGee Middle School in Berlin had a four-point violation for improper food temperatures but scored a 93. Honeyspot House Elementary in Stratford scored a 96 with one four-point violation in January for an equipment problem. The Stratford Health Department sent a letter to the school ordering that the violation be fixed in 10 days.
Also, some violations that the public might consider serious – such as evidence of mouse droppings or insects—are only a two-point deduction, under state rules. For example, Manchester Regional Academy scored a 97 in December 2010, despite evidence of rodent activity in the kitchen. St. Mary’s School in Branford had the same score of 97, but its only violations were a dirty stove hood grate and an empty paper towel dispenser.
Some inspectors appeared to be lenient in their scoring, noting violations in the “comments” section of reports but taking no points off the overall score. That occurred at least twice in New Britain, where an inspector noted that food was not at the correct temperature for holding before serving—but the overall scores were 98 and 99.
In interviews, some local health department inspectors said their towns were in compliance, even though records indicated that the required number of inspections spanned two calendar years.
William Gerrish, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Health, said the agency conducts investigations of complaints it receives concerning local health departments. “The department, depending on its findings, offers technical assistance, conducts food service inspections audits, and provides education to support compliance with state regulations,’’ Gerrish said.
He added, ‘‘Clearly there are challenges that local health departments face in keeping up with their inspection schedule. Most importantly, the health and safety of our children should be our number one priority. If they are not being inspected as often as they should, we will work with the local health departments to evaluate the program and determine a solution. During this time, food establishments should be inspected according to priority of risk, and most importantly, the quality of inspections must not be compromised.’‘
The C-HIT review found that most health departments had designated sanitarians responsible for conducting school inspections. The issue for most was the number of those staff.
“We’ve been lucky. Our staff has been very stable for the last five to six years, “said David Rogers, assistant director for environmental health for the Naugatuck Valley Health District, which serves six towns and has met the inspection mandate. “I sympathize with other districts that have a lot of turnover and budget issues.”
Although Hartford is not in compliance with inspection rules, records show it improved significantly in cleanliness and safety in the last three years. In 2007, Hartford schools had on average at least 2.7 four-point violations. In 2010, the schools with inspections had no four-point violations, and most scored at 95 or above.
Most of the records reviewed by C-HIT were paper reports filled out by inspectors. In some cases, paper reports were not available and information provided through on-line reports was limited.
Margaret Lohmiller and Briana Dudas are Quinnipiac University interns.
Lynne DeLucia, C-HIT editor and writers Uma Ramiah and Kate Farrish contributed to this report.
How clean is your child’s school cafeteria? Check out C-HIT’s Datamine.