E. Coli, Salmonella and Rat Poop -- Oh, My!

Heather Gehlert: How safe is your child's school cafeteria?
Congress requires twice-yearly health inspections of school cafeterias to help prevent outbreaks of food poisoning, but recent data from the Dept. of Agriculture shows that this isn't always happening.

The data, obtained by the Associated Press, revealed that one in 10 schools didn't get inspected at all last year, and 30 percent only received one inspection.

Although that doesn't necessarily mean there will be more cases of food poisoning, the inspections are an important preventative public health measure. Inspectors are supposed to enforce temperature regulations, ensuring that hot foods are kept hot enough and cold foods are kept cold enough. They are also supposed to monitor employee hand-washing and keep the yuck factor under control, making sure things like rat pellets aren't finding their way into the food.

Here's the data from the Dept. of Agriculture, as reported by the AP:
94,132 schools reporting in the 2005-2006 school year:

  • Ten percent, or 9,498 schools, were not inspected at all.
  • Twenty-nine percent, or 27,184 schools, were inspected once.
  • Sixty-one percent, or 57,450 schools, were inspected at least twice.

No data was reported by 7,309 schools.
The missed visits mirror a drop-off in food safety inspections by the Food and Drug Administration. A recent AP analysis found FDA inspections fell by nearly half between 2003 and 2006.
When inspections don't happen in cafeterias, it's not the school's fault. Cafeteria workers don't inspect themselves. It's up to state and local health authorities to schedule inspections, and many health departments are severely understaffed, particularly those in small towns and rural areas.
Congress changed the required number of inspections from one to two during the 2005-2006 school year, and the regulation applies to all schools that participate in the federal school lunch program, which provides free and reduced-price meals to low-income children. That's essentially all public schools, and about half of the nation's 60 million students eat lunches prepared at school.
Heather Gehlert is a managing editor at AlterNet.
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