Feeding Our Children: Schools among cleanest places to eatInspections of school cafeterias turn up far fewer problems than inspections of restaurants and convenience stores, say the people who probe the pantries, refrigerators and sinks of local schools.
By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune
Inspections of school cafeterias turn up far fewer problems than inspections of restaurants and convenience stores, say the people who probe the pantries, refrigerators and sinks of local schools.
Government inspection reports of several area school districts for the past three years showed only a few incidents that would make you say: “Ewww.”
Reasons for violations include: expired freshness dates for products, dented cans, rotten vegetables, a lack of hand-washing or glove changes between tasks, thawing and refreezing pizza, water not hot enough and milk not cold enough.
“Typically, schools are pretty good inspections for us,” said Brian Becker, an environmental health specialist with the Douglas County Department of Health and Human Services. “They are well-trained, maintained; they’ve had their staff for a while. Oftentimes in other industries in food, you’ll see a higher turnover.”
School cafeterias must be inspected twice a year. Most schools this year had low numbers of critical violations — those that can lead directly to food-borne illnesses — or none at all. Non-critical violations — of which there were higher numbers — don’t directly cause illness; they often relate to equipment or flooring. But even they can lead to food-borne illness.
Improper hand-washing is the practice most potentially harmful to the health of students in cafeterias, said Ryan Trenberth, supervisor of the Duluth District Office of the Minnesota Department of Health, which has taken over for St. Louis County inspections.
“We’re finding that’s how most viruses get spread,” he said. “Sick employees … not hand-washing, or cross-contamination going from a raw product to a ready-to-eat product.”
Neither inspector could remember any food-borne illnesses spread in school cafeterias in Douglas or St. Louis counties.
It happens, they said, but those illnesses are under-reported.
“Most people, when they have those gastrointestinal problems, they often don’t go to the doctor,” Becker said. “Sometimes doctors don’t even test for it.”
Trenberth explained why some findings are listed as critical violations:
Duluth school district food service director Pam Bowe said the inspectors are excellent resources for schools, reminding them about hand-washing rules and upcoming changes with food code.
Inspectors work with the districts to fix the problems instead of “coming down with a big hammer,” Trenberth said, noting: “I don’t think they struggle with much.”