Editorial: Cafeteria inspection process leaves bad taste
Published 5:57 pm, Wednesday, January 9, 2013
Regardless of how often the state requires school cafeterias to be inspected, towns and cities in Connecticut basically do it when they can. They pay even less mind to rules about closing kitchens that repeatedly fail inspection.
Those were just two of the troubling findings of a Hearst Connecticut Newspapers analysis that looked at cafeteria inspections in Fairfield County schools over the last five years.
Another was that school districts do not have to notify parents if their child's school cafeteria fails a health inspection.
Changes need to be made. Ensuring food safety in schools should not be optional, and it should not be a secret. Kids have a right to purchase safe food at their school, and parents have a right to know if conditions could prevent that from happening.
Parents should know if rodent droppings have been discovered in a school kitchen, if the tuna salad offered their child isn't sufficiently refrigerated, if equipment to keep hot food at a safe temperature isn't working. Those and other dangerous conditions popped up -- some repeatedly -- in reporter Maggie Gordon's study of inspections performed between July 1, 2007 and June 30, 2012.
First, the problem with inspection frequency: The state health code mandates that kitchens "shall be inspected at intervals not to exceed one hundred and twenty (120) days."
But what is required is very different from what actually happens. Frequency varies dramatically across the county. While towns including Weston, Westport and Redding inspect more than three times a year, and Greenwich inspects more than twice, Stamford only inspect on average once a year, and Bridgeport once every two.
One reason is the prolonged budget crunch, and the fact that the health code in this instance represents an unfunded mandate handed down by the state. Municipalities that have cut health department staff have a hard time keeping up with inspections. But kids in Bridgeport deserve the same level of food safety as kids in Westport. This is an example of the many ways in which budget cuts can put people in danger.
As for shutting problem kitchens down: The state code says a cafeteria be re-inspected two weeks after a failure. If that results in another failure, "the director of health shall take immediate steps to have the food service establishment closed."
That sounds reasonable. The problem is, it literally never happens. Local health officials in interviews said they have "discretion" when it comes to closing cafeterias. The Hearst analysis did not find a single instance of a cafeteria being closed, despite many occurrences of consecutive failures.
Keep in mind that it is relatively rare for schools to fail inspections. Of the 2,248 inspection records examined, only 199 resulted in failures, or about 9 percent. But also keep in mind that a kitchen can have several problems and still pass.
Inspectors check kitchens against a list of potential violations. A major problem, such as food being stored at the wrong temperature or lack of hand-washing facilities, results in an automatic failure. The other way a school can fail is if its kitchen racks up enough so-called small violations. Here, the state needs to reassess its concept of "small." A kitchen can pass inspection, for example, even if mice or other vermin are discovered.
Budget challenges are serious in many communities, as well as the state itself. But it's flat-out wrong to flout rules designed to keep children from getting sick. And it's just as wrong to keep potential health problems from parents. In fact, if parents had to be told of health violations, cafeteria problems now allowed to linger would be remedied more quickly -- or they wouldn't occur at all.
"Sunlight is the best disinfectant," U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, referring to the value of transparent government. In the effort to ensure school cafeterias are clean, his sentiment is true literally.