The Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) recently published its final rule on school food safety inspections, which will take effect on October 2, 2009. The rule states that all schools participating in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the School Breakfast Program (SBP) “must obtain two inspections per year, post the most recent inspection report in a visible location, and release a copy of the report to members of the public upon request.”

FNS published an interim rule on June 15, 2005, and received 75 public comments regarding school food safety inspections, most of them (59) coming from school food authorities or school districts.  Comments opposing the new regulation centered on five areas of concern for schools facing budget restrictions while striving to meet FNS requirements:  The need for inspection, inspection cost, risk assessment, the reporting requirement, and operational issues. 

When addressed individually, these comments are summarized as follows:

  • School cafeterias do not require a second food safety inspection since school cafeterias have well-trained staff and/or managers who are certified in safe food handling practices.  A second food safety inspection is unnecessary.
  • School districts may not have the funds to pay for the second inspection or for inspection staff.  Some stated that due to the second inspection requirement, the cost of food safety inspections had doubled.
  • Schools are lower-risk food establishments; state and local regulatory agencies should assess the risk level of school foodservice operations before establishing the frequency of inspections.
  • Inspection fees, the scope of the second inspection, self-inspections, and third-party inspections need to be addressed.  Policies vary from state to state, as do funding and the availability of inspectors.  

Although there was much opposition to an increase in food safety inspections, In its final ruling FNS noted that compliance with this rule was at seventy percent in school year 2007-2008.  FNS indicated that the increase in compliance was due to outreach efforts and collaboration between State and local program operators and inspecting agencies.     

FNS stated:

Despite the noted cost and administrative burden that may result from the additional inspection, there is a need to require high food safety standards in the NSLP and SBP. These school meal programs serveover 38 million lunches and breakfasts daily to children ages 2 and above. A foodborne illness in the school meal programs could have devastating consequences, as young children are particularly vulnerable.

According to the USDA Website, 30.5 million low-cost or free lunches were served through the NSLP in 2008, and 10.5 million low-cost or free breakfast were served through the NBP in 2007.   

  • Marymary

    As someone who used to inspect public school kitchens, I can’t fathom why anyone would oppose this. The public schools I inspected were very clean and well-maintained and were proof that restaurant operators could do a much better and consistent job of cleaning and maintenance of equipment and facilities if they wanted to.
    Nevertheless, I think that two inspections a year is a minimum. In my jurisdiction we did a minimum of four inspections for every retail food establishment, including both private and public schools, during each calendar year. Schools did not have to pay for inspections, and, as not-for-profit entities, did not have to pay for the annual renewal of their “retail” food licenses.
    While school food services may in general be very well run, they serve a vulnerable population and cook foods in large quantities, both of which could lead to foodborne illness outbreaks. I don’t see school kitchens as low-risk operations, because they cook significant quantities of food and there are many opportunities for even a minor breakdown in sanitation practices to result in illness for large numbers of people. Furthermore, just as happens in the restaurant industry, school staff may feel pressure to show up for work when ill.
    To me, a low-risk operation is someplace that stores and sells potentially hazardous food, but does little or no actual food preparation, such as a convenenience store that has a milk cooler or an ice cream freezer.

  • Marymary

    I think this is a good idea, and find it hard to believe that anyone would oppose it.
    I inspected a lot of schools in my previous job, and they were for the most part very clean and very well-maintained. In fact, I wished that some of the restaurant owners who claimed that they didn’t have time to clean and maintain their equipment and facilities could have gone with me on my school inspections.
    Nevertheless, I still feel that schools are not a lower-risk environment for food safety purposes. Schools cook large quantities of food, have to try to maintain large quantities of food at safe temperatures, and serve a population that is especially vulnerable to foodborne illness. They often obtain their foods from a myriad of sources. There is also the potential for cafeteria staff to report to work when they shouldn’t. In my opinion, for whatever it is worth, schools are relatively high-risk establishments, and could be very high-risk in instances they work with raw meat, fish, or poultry, and/or make a lot of food from scratch. An example of a lower-risk food establishment is a convenience store that has a milk cooler or an ice cream freezer and does no or very limited food preparation. Schools do much more than that.