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.
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.