Thursday, November 5, 2015
Some school cafeteria health inspection reports in Bucks and eastern Montgomery counties are less than appetizing
Posted: Sunday, October 18, 2015
Bucks County health inspectors removed egg salad, tuna salad and other items from a salad bar at Pennsbury West High School because the items weren't chilled to a safe temperature to prevent bacteria growth.Insects and rodents were noted at Pennsbury West and in 25 other school food service areas -- a repeat violation for some schools.
Montgomery County inspectors found meatballs warmed to only 100 degrees, 40 degrees below a safe holding temperature, at Hatboro-Horsham High School.
Flies were breeding in dirty wet linens in a student-run kitchen at a bakery open to the public at the Bucks County Technical High School in Bristol Township, inspectors found.
Kitchen workers at Souderton Area High School in Franconia bagged sandwiches barehanded and handled dirty dishes — and then clean ones — without washing their hands, according to a January health inspection.
Soap, towels or hot water were missing at staff hand-washing stations in five area schools, health inspectors reported.
This is a sampling of the violations that health inspectors from Bucks and Montgomery counties found in 152 of the 179 school kitchens, cafeterias and school concession stands they inspected between August 2013 and August 2015, according to a Calkins Media analysis of inspection reports filed by the county health departments. Schools in the National School Lunch Program, which include most in the area, are inspected twice a year under federal guidelines.
At 114 school facilities, inspectors reported critical violations, which are described as those presenting a high risk of spreading potentially dangerous foodborne illnesses. Improper food preparation practices introduce pathogens into food. Poor holding temperatures allow bacteria to grow. Under-cooking fails to kill all contaminates. Certain strains of E. coli, salmonella and other bacteria that can cause foodborne illness can live in surfaces for up to two hours, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The public school districts and charter, private and parochial schools with violations that are mentioned in this story were contacted for response about the health department inspections. The Bucks and Montgomery school administrators who responded didn't dispute the violations. Some described the inspection reports as learning tools. Others emphasized that most citations didn’t involve public health risks or were conditions that were corrected immediately. And some attributed violations to outdated or faulty kitchen equipment and facilities.
Among Bucks County schools, the highest number of critical violations occurred in the School Lane Charter School in Bensalem and Bristol Township’s Franklin D. Roosevelt Middle School.
School Lane, which has three kitchens at its two locations, had nine inspections over two years, reporting critical violations in seven of those inspections.
Inspectors earlier this year reported seeing a cafeteria worker chop and serve celery “without first washing the celery.” Last year, inspectors saw one cafeteria worker picking up items off the floor with the same gloves that were used for handling food. Another worker was seen talking on a cellphone in the kitchen without removing gloves that were used to handle food. Mouse droppings were found in a storage room during inspections in 2013 and 2014.
School Lane replaced its food service vendor mid-year in 2014 after a series of violation-heavy health inspection reports, food service director Andrew Ruhl said. The current food service vendor, Nutrition Inc., upgraded the service line in the middle school cafeteria adding food warming trays, which has helped with maintaining holding temperatures, he said.
But Ruhl said the elementary school kitchen, where hot food is prepared for its three schools, struggles with mostly old equipment. Cold foods are prepared in the middle school kitchen, then transferred to the elementary school within the same building. Lunches also are prepared at the middle school and delivered to the high school until that building has been renovated, Ruhl said.
FDR Middle was inspected five times between March 2013 and March 2015 and 20 critical violations were reported.
Inspectors noted the presence of ants and roaches, which could freely enter the school since "several windows in the cafeteria were open without screens," on March 11, 2015, and Sept. 17, 2014. A March 19, 2014, inspection report also warned of “potentially hazardous foods, including tuna, egg and chicken, observed maintaining poor product temperatures at the salad bar.”
The school building is more than 70 years old and “requires a lot of attention,” acting Superintendent Melanie Gehrens said. Over the last two years, the school has had many improvements – “as the district budget allowed” – including roof repairs over the cafeteria and kitchen area and new hot water tanks, she said.
After the most recent inspection in September, FDR had only one violation that was immediately corrected, according to Gehrens. The violation — a critical one — involved a dishwasher that was not reaching hot enough temperatures to properly sanitize dishes. The correction requires employees to use a different procedure and machine, according to the inspection report.
Bristol Township uses an in-house Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point program that requires written daily cleaning schedules and temperature readings of all refrigerated units, hot holding units and cooking temperatures, Gehrens said.
“We are happy to say that many of our schools recently inspected received no violations at all since the start of the new school year,” she said, adding, “We are not happy with even one violation and continually strive for perfection.”
Not all schools or school districts had multiple violations, however. At least 18 in Bucks and Montgomery counties had few or no reported violations over the two years.
Central Bucks High East High School was among them. It has had only two health code violations in two years, both occurring this year. One involved chicken fried rice that was returned to a food warmer before serving the next lunch period, which isn't appropriate, and a dishwasher running too cold in the wash cycle.
Susan Burkhard, whose daughter is a CB East senior and son is a chef, was pleased with the results.
“I don’t think they are anything major,” Burkhard said. “I think that would be a common problem in any food establishment except for the dishwasher."
The Pennridge School District had only one school with a violation in 2013. Keith Valley Middle School in Horsham was one of six eastern Montgomery County schools with four or fewer violations over the two years. Keith Valley had two violations, including a piece of clothing found in a food storage room.
"I would hate to have violations," Keith Valley cafeteria manager Dolores Connelly said. "I'd be worried about kids getting sick."
The number and types of health code violations at area schools may seem shocking, but health department officials in Bucks and Montgomery counties said most school food facilities are generally well run and they couldn't recall any cases of food poisoning from school-prepared foods.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks school cafeterias behind commercial restaurants and homes as a source of foodborne illnesses.
Schools were a source of 28 confirmed or suspected food poisoning outbreaks in Pennsylvania between 1998 and 2013, according to the CDC. There were 33 confirmed or suspected outbreaks reported among sit-down restaurants between 2009 and 2013 alone. However, reporting to the CDC is voluntary and the reports don't distinguish between school-prepared food and other sources, including outside vendors.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Friday announced a new food safety campaign aimed at children and parents.
Children are among the most vulnerable to food poisoning because their immune systems are still developing, USDA Deputy Under Secretary Alfred Almanza said, so caregivers need to take extra precautions. USDA advertisements will focus on four concepts aimed at preventing foodborne illness: cleanliness; separating raw meats from other foods; cooking food to safe temperatures; and keep food chilled to safe temperatures. Almanza encouraged parents to download the new USDA Foodkeeper application for Android and iPhone devices to help them improve food safety.
Given their size, schools present the potential for large-scale outbreaks, according to the CDC. That’s why the federal government demands a minimum of two health inspections annually at school participating in the free and reduced lunch program and mandatory annual food safety training for school food service employees and managers.
And while the presence of bugs or rodents may be disturbing, officials said it isn't considered a public health threat at the same level as poor hygiene among cafeteria workers, food kept at improper temperatures, under-cooked meat and cross-contamination, where raw animal products that can harbor dangerous bacteria taint other food items, such as produce.
Insects and rodent feces are “unavoidably” present in foods without presenting a health hazard, according to microbiologist Mike Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. He added the federal Food and Drug Administration has established acceptable levels of both items in uncooked items, including flour and sugar.
"If they are finding it (bugs or feces) on the (cooked) food, that is a concern,” Doyle added. “It’s not pleasant to find rodent pellets in your flour, but if you cook it -- that is what cooking is for -- to kill the harmful bacteria.”
Bensalem resident Dolores Averona said she was happy to learn her daughter's school, Russell C. Struble Elementary, has had no critical health code violations in more than a year, but she wasn't pleased to hear that rodent activity in a storage room was among Struble's six non-critical violations.
“In my mind it’s unacceptable," she said. "We’re sending our children to a school, yes to be educated, but to partake in lunch under the impression they’re being fed a meal that is going to be just as good as something I’d serve at home.”
Nicole Giovetsis was similarly disturbed to hear her daughter’s school -- Bensalem's Samuel Faust Elementary -- had nine violations, four critical, since last year.
“It’s surprising that the parents don’t know,” she said. “I don’t even know how to react. You’d think that they would be extra careful because they’re dealing with children.”
Bensalem Superintendent Samuel Lee didn't dispute the county inspection reports. The district's cafeterias make up one the largest food service operations in the county and the high school kitchen was only recently renovated to meet the standards for food preparation, Lee said.
“Our schools serve 2,700 lunches per day, along with 800 breakfasts and additional a la carte items," Lee said. "Thousands of pounds of (trash) are moved daily. Safety, cleanliness and product quality at the nine schools is our number one priority."
Food scientists say even a significant number of less dangerous, violations of so-called good retail practices and repeat violations may signal trouble.
“That, to me, says who is managing this place?” said Donald Schaffner, a food microbiologist with the Institute of Food Technologists who teaches food science at New Jersey's Rutgers University. “What is the manager doing, spending time on? They should be spending their time preventing these little things.”
Dr. Lydia Johnson, director of the Bureau of Food Safety and laboratories for the Pennsylvania Health Department, agreed a pattern of repeat violations is a red flag for state inspectors who handle schools in areas without local health departments.
“If they see a lot of violations, they’re obviously having problems with managerial control and focusing on food safety,” Johnson said. “They’re not getting the message this is a violation and it has impact on school safety.”
Some food scientists believe sanitation and food preparation will become more labor-intensive for kitchen staffs as schools move to replace prepackaged and heat-and-serve foods with more fruits, vegetables and fresh-cooked items to meet healthier federal nutrition guidelines.
No research exists correlating kitchen staff numbers with inspection report outcomes, but a “(made) from scratch” kitchen will generally require more staff to produce quality, safe food, said Kevin Roberts, director of the Center of Excellent for Food Safety Research in Child Nutrition at Kansas State University.
“If a school moves to more scratch cooking, there will be greater challenges associated with protecting the food that is served,” Roberts added. “The more process you implement within the system, the greater the risk.”
Bucks tech school cafeteria supervisor Anthony Mazzocchi agreed that healthier menus mean more prep time and cleanup work for his staff of 10 part-time employees and two full-time employees, who are responsible for preparing food for 550 students daily.
Before one recent lunch service, Mazzocchi and his cafeteria manager washed, quartered and seasoned 200 pounds of red bliss potatoes as a side dish, instead of serving frozen pre-cut french fries. “My hands are still sore,” Mazzocchi joked.
Tech school director Leon Poeske said the school had about 12 violations a year in its four kitchens, which breaks down to less than a handful each year. The students' "learning" kitchens serve about 1,000 people a month in the school restaurant. It and the bakery, which are open to the public, typically have more violations in the fall inspections than they do in the spring, because of the student learning curve, he said.
At Abington Friends, insects or rodent droppings were noted in three of four inspections.
“This is clearly an important issue that deserves attention and one that we take very seriously,” said Richard Nourie, head of the Friends school, which accumulated 32 violations, including six critical ones, over two years. The private Quaker grade school uses an outside food vendor and recently made “significant investments” in its kitchen areas to address items that were brought to its attention, Nourie added in a statement.