How Safe is the Food in America’s Schools?
New Federal Law Gives Parents Access to Cafeteria Inspection Reports
September 22, 2005
Is your child’s school cafeteria free of rodents, under-cooked or improperly stored food, and other hazards that can cause serious—and possibly fatal—food poisoning? A new federal law makes it easier for parents to answer that question by requiring more frequent inspections and easy access to school cafeteria inspection reports.
Today the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the nonprofit nutrition and food safety watchdog group, released its School Food Safety Bill of Rights, which tells parents how to take advantage of the new law and become involved in promoting food safety at the school level. The new law was folded into the Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization bill last year by food safety advocates in Congress, led by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). It went into effect in July.
“Kids have a right to safe food in school, and parents have a right to know what goes on in the school cafeteria,” said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. “Until now, many parents had to jump through hoops to track down inspection reports. Posting these reports in schools and on the Internet will be a powerful incentive for schools to run clean and safe cafeterias.”
CSPI graded 25 localities on their current practices for disclosing school cafeteria inspection reports. New York, Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Washington are among many jurisdictions that do not make school cafeteria inspection reports available online. Denver and Houston do put reports online, but don’t assign scores like other jurisdictions do. Los Angeles County gives scores, but makes them hard for users to find.
CSPI gave grades of “B” to DeKalb County, Georgia; Seattle and King County, Washington; and San Francisco, for making their reports available online. Only one jurisdiction received CSPI’s “A” grade: Maricopa County, Arizona, which includes Phoenix. Its online reports even include the comments of the inspectors.
“With 28 million children eating lunch at school every day in the United States, I believe government has an obligation to ensure parents have some peace of mind when they send their children off to school in the morning,” said Representative DeLauro. “Since children are particularly vulnerable to foodborne illness, schools must be vigilant in their efforts to ensure that cafeterias are not putting children at risk. These changes in law will support parents who want to work with school principals and food-service directors to ensure a safe environment.”
Some of the most common pathogens responsible for school outbreaks include E. coli O157:H7, Clostridium perfringens, Norovirus, and Salmonella, according to data from CSPI’s Outbreak Alert! database. Some infections from those can be directly linked to critical violations in school cafeterias, especially violations involving improper food temperature. Clostridium perfringens and Staphylococcus aureus can multiply to dangerous levels when foods that are supposed to be served hot are allowed to cool. Infected food handlers may have been responsible for some outbreaks of Norovirus and Hepatitis A. Salmonella, which is common on raw poultry, can spread to fresh produce if those foods are stored improperly close to one another. Hamburgers or foods containing ground beef can harbor E. coli if not cooked to 155 degrees Fahrenheit.
Nine-year-old Tony Streiff of Minneapolis was hospitalized in 2000 after he and his classmates ate school lunches containing undercooked beef contaminated with E. coli. Tony’s ordeal inspired his father Ken Streiff to become an advocate for food-safety in schools. “Parents should take an active role by asking questions, insisting that the cafeteria is inspected regularly, and demanding that any violations are addressed immediately,” said Streiff.
Parents can see if schools are complying with the new law by visiting the cafeteria and seeing if the inspection reports are posted in a visible location. If it has been more than seven months since the last inspection, CSPI advises parents to call the city or county public health department. And, if the inspection report lists troubling violations, parents and PTAs should ask to discuss a food-safety plan with the school principal.
CSPI also says that although more needs to be done, school food service providers have gone to great lengths in recent years to improve the nutritional quality of school meals. More fruits and vegetables end up on school lunch trays than in the past, and meals are generally lower in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium.