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Food Safety News

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Thousands of Schools Going Without Required Number of Inspections

During the recent three-year period for which data is available, about 100,000 schools in the National School Lunch Program have missed at least one of their two required food safety inspections, adding up to almost 73,000 missed inspections between 2008 and 2011, Food Safety News has learned.

National School Lunch Week is being celebrated this week, with little attention being paid to food safety in a school year being remembered for the rollout of new federal nutritional standards with restrictions on sodium, fat and calories. The changes are bringing many complaints from students across the country.

But the 66-year-old program has never been without food safety issues. With more than 224 billion meals served, it’s got a “captive population” to serve. And many parents think that with federal involvement comes a guarantee that the food is safe.

But every year, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service cranks out reports on one of the most basic measures of food safety for institutional food services – inspection compliance.

National School Lunch Program schools, according to USDA,“are required to maintain property sanitation and health standards in conformance with all applicable state and local laws and regulations.”

“In addition, schools are required to obtain two school safety inspections per school year, which are to be conducted by a state or local government agency responsible for food safety inspection,” USDA’s report says.

The requirement to reach out and obtain two inspections from the correct state and local authority has been in place since the 2005-2006 school year. Schools are required to get copies of those inspection reports and share them with FNS.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 extends the current food safety reporting requirements through 2015.

But according to those FNS annual reports, about one in four National School Lunch Program schools are not undergoing the required number of inspections. For the 2010-2011 school year – the most recent period for which data is available – 21,963 schools reported being inspected just once or not at all.

That was very similar to the 2009-2010 school year, during which 22,915 NSLP schools reported one or no inspections; 959 didn’t report. These two school years were a marked improvement over 2008-2009 when 28,113 NSLP schools failed to obtain the two required inspections, a 28 percent failure rate.

Among the explanations USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services has received for this non-compliance are:

  • State and local public health agencies say they lack the staff and funding to inspect school lunch facilities.
  • The responsible inspection agency operates under a risk-based policy and schools are a low priority under their system.
  • No local public health inspectors are available for small towns and rural areas.

While the NSLP has escaped anything on the scaled of the recent outbreak in eastern Germany linked to frozen strawberries imported from China that sickened more than 11,000 students in 500 schools, foodborne diseases outbreaks in U.S. schools are fairly common.

A few years ago, the USA Today identified 477 outbreaks of foodborne illnesses in schools during a ten year period. No definite source was found in more than half of the school outbreaks. More than 23,000 children were sickened during that decade from “lunchroom staples.”

Like restaurants, school lunch programs are subject to inspection by any one of the nation’s 2,800 state and local health departments, which are run by cities, counties, special districts and tribal agencies. But according to the National Association of County & City Health Officials, about 34,000 jobs at these agencies have been eliminated since 2008.

Photo Courtesy of Maryland Public Schools


© Food Safety News
  • Andy

    These job cuts you allude to in the conclusion of your article are not necessarily a bad thing. I think there needs to be more job cuts. Dump the incompetent bureaucrats, managers and technicians who have been unable or unwilling to get these simple inspections completed. It’s not like they are having to move heaven and earth here, they merely need to walk through and do the inspections, then follow up on recommendations. I will guarantee these same fretful overworked underpaid superheros encounter no difficulty whatsoever finding ample time and sufficient fiscal resources to sit around in do-nothing meetings or to jet away to posh conferences.  Stop the waste — fire them all. Install effective systems, staff those with competent people for a change.

    • Em

      That’s ridiculous. Anyone who whines about cutting “waste” without specifics doesn’t know what he is talking about. Your disdain for public employees reveals your bias and lack of common sense.

    • Marymary

       You obviously don’t know anything about food inspection at the state and local level.  Jet around to posh conferences?  I don’t think so. I never got to do that when I worked in a local health department.  Neither did my coworkers or the state inspectors I worked with.  Most local health departments are understaffed and overworked.   I worked long hours with no overtime pay, just comp time when I could take it, which usually meant waiting until the end of the year—possibly a violation of wage and hour laws, I might add.   Every school in my county was inspected at least twice a year.  It’s easy to have an opinion.  Next time, inform yourself before blasting away on your keyboard about incompetent bureaucrats.  

      Inspections are not simple walkthroughs.  Even a small school has a lot of things to inspect, such as food temperatures, warewashing machine sanitation temperatures, storage of chemicals and food, lighting, operation of coolers and freezers, datemarking, FIFO protocols, staff procedures, employee health issues, checking for signs of vermin and vector control, etc.  An inspector can’t just walk through to complete an inspection. 

      I can’t imagine why any state or local health department would claim that schools are considered a low-risk for foodborne illness.  Schools do a lot of food preparation and serve a population that is particularly susceptible to foodborne illness.  Schools should be inspected at least as frequently as any full-service restaurant.  Schools do tend to be much cleaner than restaurants, but that does not make them low risk.  Nor does it mean that the inspection of a school is simple.          

  • Cspringmire

    This has always interested me, as I am a local inspector. Our funding does NOT come from the USDA, yet we still hve to comply with rules they make. Our dept. does do the “required” number of inspections, but that number is above what we are required to do according to our funding agency (Illinois Department of Public Health through the local health protection grant).

  • Kelli

     The argument is schools do not have enough money or personnel to get these inspections completed? In that case those schools cannot afford to be running lunch programs and we cannot afford to risk our kids’ well being with them. Schools and teachers use the same lame glass half empty excuses for why kids aren’t learning. Fact is our schools are a hopeless dysfunctional mess. And our kids will pay the price for that. It is our own fault for accepting those excuses from teachers and school bureaucrats instead of making them accountable for performance in the classroom and in the cafeteria.

    • Schools do not do the inspections or in most cases pay a fee to hav ethem done . The local Health Department  does them.  A county, city or State Helath Department depending on which state and county you are talking about.  The issue here is if the schools are not getting done wha telse is not getting done.

    • Marymary

      The schools don’t pay for the inspections.  Inspections are handled by local or state health departments, many of which are strapped.  I don’t agree with health departments not inspecting schools at least twice a year, but to suggest that the lack of inspection is about bureaucrats and dysfunctional messes at schools is to show that you are ill-informed.  What happened?  Did all the rwnj’s receive a Google alert about this story?

  • CoalitionFor SensibleSafeguard

    It is often said that
    societies should be judged by how they treat their most vulnerable members.
    Over the last few months, we’ve seen a number of food-borne illness outbreaks
    involving recalls of peanut butter, cantaloupe, mangoes, and ricotta cheese.
    Many of those affected are children and the elderly.

    The fact that so many
    school cafeterias are not being inspected properly warrants action. The USDA
    should be given additional resources if it cannot carry out the inspections
    that are required by law. Parents, not to mention the children themselves,
    rightly expect a level of safety from the food that is offered in a school’s

    need regulations to protect our food supply, just like we need regulations to
    protect the environment and the integrity of our financial system. Otherwise,
    it is left to the whim of corporations, and we’ve all seen what happens when
    the fox is left to guard the hen-house 

  • guest12345

    Clean inspection reports can be generated  between the local food safety agencies and the school districts, and it does happen. Relying on local inspectors is like asking for a school outbreak to happen.What then is the solution to food safety at schools?

     Wake up FNS and send your inspectors to randomly check the school cafeteria’s. At the same time check out the foods served to the children, see how long a particular food is served in the cafeteria refrigerator etc. 

  • Husna

    Thank you for posting a very eye-opening article for the public. Hope measures can be implemented at the National level to ensure food safety at every school.

  • I manged to do at least three visits per school kitchen a year.  Man got 4 as they were open for summer school.  I rated al shools as  high risk due to the population served and the need to have at least two inspections to comply  with regulations.   

    • Marymary

       I tried to reply to you Raymond James, but I guess I reached a commenting limit, or my comment  was too long.  Anyway,  I’m glad to hear that your health department inspects schools frequently.  I found that schools were very clean and well maintained, much more so than most restaurants.  Nevertheless, being clean and well-maintained is not the same as being a low-risk food establishment.   If any local or state health department is categorizing schools as being low-risk establishments, I’d be very curious to know why. 

      Schools do a lot of preparation of potentially hazardous foods, and they do so in large quantities.  They also serve a population that is particularly susceptible to foodborne illness.  Schools should be inspected as least as often as any full-service restaurant. 

  • Marymary

    Food safety inspections fall under differing jurisdiction depending on the situation.  School inspections are done by state and local inspections because that is who has jurisdiction over local food services of any kind.  FDA and USDA do not have enough inspectors to do the job they are already charged with.  How are they supposed to take on inspecting schools?