Ask any kid what they think of their school cafeteria. Then ask the scientists at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The answers are likely to be similar.
A report issued by the CSPI warns that conditions in America's school cafeterias could trigger potentially disastrous outbreaks of food poisoning at any time. Hartford, Conn., received the lowest score of all the systems studied.
Most of the 29 million meals served in the nation's school cafeterias each day are nutritious and safe, but some school districts and governments aren't inspecting school cafeterias frequently enough or are using out-of-date food safety standards, leaving students at risk of food poisoning, the report warns.
Younger children in particular face a higher risk of complications from infections caused by E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, and other potentially deadly foodborne pathogens.
CSPI analyzed inspection reports from high school cafeterias in 20 jurisdictions across the country and then rated those jurisdictions on the rigor of food-safety inspections, frequency of inspections, and ease of access to the results of cafeteria inspections.
Some inspection reports documented unacceptable conditions such as roaches, both dead and alive; rodent droppings; and improper food storage and handling techniques.
"Cities, counties, and school districts shouldn't wait until a major outbreak of Hepatitis A, E. coli, or Salmonella forces them to update their food codes and ramp up inspections," said Ken Kelly, food safety attorney for CSPI and lead author of the report. "Regrettably, many school cafeterias may be just one meal away from an outbreak."
Of the 20 jurisdictions evaluated, Hartford, Conn., received the lowest score, 37 out of a possible 100. Hartford had the highest number of critical violations, including multiple cases of dirty equipment and utensils, inadequate hand-washing facilities, and poor personnel hygiene.
Hartford also had infrequent inspections (on average, one per year, violating the federal requirements for two inspections), poor access to inspection reports, and a weak food code.
Other jurisdictions with failing scores include the District of Columbia, with the lowest inspection frequency; Rhode Island; Minneapolis, Minn.; and Hillsborough (includes Tampa) and Dade (includes Miami) counties in Florida. Montgomery County, Md., barely passed, as it has the most outdated food code.
Fort Worth, Texas, had the best food safety score, with a score of 80 out of 100. Other top performers overall were King County, Wash. (includes Seattle); Houston; and Denver, Colo. Fort Worth; Maricopa County, Ariz. (includes Phoenix); Farmington Valley Health District, Conn.; Fulton County, Ga. (includes Atlanta); Hillsborough County; and Minneapolis scored well in inspection frequency (even though it failed overall). Maricopa County and Virginia also earned top scores for access to inspection information.
CSPI's Outbreak Alert database has documented more than 11,000 cases of foodborne illnesses associated with schools between 1990 and 2004. Just one outbreak can have devastating consequences on the health of students, productivity in the classroom, and even on school district's finances.
In 2003, the Washington State Supreme Court upheld a $4.6 million verdict against a school district after 11 children were sickened from E. coli linked to ground beef in tacos.
The most common pathogens responsible for school outbreaks include E. coli, Clostridium perfringens, Norovirus, and Salmonella, according to CSPI's database. Infections from Norovirus and Hepatitis A are often linked to infected food handlers and other critical violations in school cafeterias.
Salmonella, which is common on raw poultry, can spread to fresh produce if those foods are stored too closely together. If not cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, hamburgers and other foods containing ground beef can harbor E. coli.
To protect school children from food poisoning, CSPI recommends the following measures:
State and local governments should adopt up-to-date safety standards and receive adequate funding to ensure compliance with federal inspection regulations outlined in the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004.
Schools should request timely inspections, employ certified food handlers, and use the best food safety procedures.
Parents should monitor conditions in their child's cafeteria and advocate for optimal food safety policies.
CSPI's complete report, "Making the Grade," is available on the CSPI Web site (pdf file).