WASHINGTON – A new federal law mandating twice-yearly food safety inspections in public schools will not be enforced in Montgomery County, where a limited number of inspectors make the new requirement unmanageable, said a health department official, and several other Maryland counties are scrambling to comply with the law.
The mandatory inspections – a provision of the Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization Act – are required of any public school participating in the federally-funded school lunch or breakfast program and are meant to prompt more vigilant food safety monitoring in school cafeterias, where improper food handling and storage can lead to food-borne illness outbreaks, such as E. coli and salmonella.
But there aren’t enough food safety inspectors to increase the number of inspections in the 194 schools in Montgomery County, the state’s largest school district with nearly 140,000 students, according to Reed McKee, administrator for licensure and regulatory services for Montgomery County Health and Human Services.
“I would say that it’s not going to be 100 percent. No, it won’t. Definitely,” said McKee. “We don’t have the staff to spend that much time in an area where it’s very unlikely that anyone will get sick, when we have restaurants out there that have more of a potential of making people sick.”
There are 18 inspectors who cover the county’s public schools, as well as about 3,000 other food service facilities and 400 one-day events per year, said McKee. Right now, high schools and middle schools in Montgomery County are getting the required two inspections per year, but the elementary schools are only getting one.
State regulations have long required at least two inspections per year at schools that cooked on-site. But because Montgomery County uses one central kitchen for its 125 elementary schools – and doesn’t cook in the cafeterias – they are considered low risk and only inspected once a year. The satellite kitchen in Rockville is inspected at least three times per year.
Charles County health inspectors are also stretched thin, but manage to get the required two inspections a year, said Patricia Herriman, a program supervisor for the Charles County Environmental Health Department.
But “finding the people to do (the inspections) is another question,” said Herriman. She also said there are questions about whether the county’s regulations match what is needed and whether local health departments have enough staff to continue the inspections.
In Baltimore, the health department usually pulls inspectors from other areas to pick up the slack, said Bernard Bochenek, director of the Bureau of Food and Ecology for the Baltimore City Health Department.
The new federal law trumps state regulations, said Alan Brench, chief of the Division of Food Control for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Office of Food Protection and Community Health Services – meaning schools no longer have any wiggle room with inspections.
“Basically, it doesn’t matter what’s in the state regulation because there’s a federal regulation that says every school has to be inspected twice (a year),” he said. “The federal regulation obviously takes precedence.”
There is no penalty for non-compliance, and McKee said until they hear otherwise, the health department will continue to set its own priorities.
“They can pass all kinds of federal laws, but unless Montgomery County passes something we don’t enforce it,” he said. “If you do a good inspection for a school then you don’t do an inspection at a facility that’s making people sick …there’s a tradeoff. You set priorities.”
McKee said the elementary schools remain a low priority because, in addition to the satellite kitchen, the cafeterias are clean. In his 34 years with the health department he can’t remember a food-borne illness outbreak.
“Now if we had a bad school lunch program that would be different,” he said. “If they made bad meals and didn’t care what they were doing it would be different, but that’s not the case.”
A review of Montgomery County Public Schools food safety inspection records from Jan. 1, 2001, through April 26, 2004, shows a fairly clean record. There were 109 critical violations out of 2,342 inspections, or less than 5 percent. There are eight critical violations – including improper hand-washing, contaminated food or food being stored at unsafe temperatures – that must be corrected immediately or the cafeteria is shut down. Of the 109 critical violations, only 25 were not corrected immediately.
The United States Department of Agriculture is the administering agency for the Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization Act, but it is up to the state and local school districts to ensure compliance, said Suanne Buggy, a USDA spokeswoman.
“USDA anticipates that schools will make a good faith effort to meet this program requirement. If schools are not in compliance, state agencies will work with schools and local agencies to overcome any barriers,” she said.
“This regulation affects school systems by relying on county government to do the food inspections,” said Kathy Lazor, director of the Division of Food and Nutrition Services for Montgomery County Public Schools. “I can work with them and collaborate and be supportive and do everything I can do, but the bottom line is that’s it . . . to them it’s really an unfunded mandate. It really depends on their time and staffing.”
At the state level, the Department of Education added a page to its annual USDA-required report to track compliance, said Robin Ziegler, chief of school and community nutrition programs for Maryland Public Schools, but, until they have compiled information from all counties, it will be difficult to determine if there is a problem.
Counties that haven’t done two inspections will be marked for “corrective action” and get help developing a plan for compliance.
Ziegler said she was under the impression that local health departments were in compliance, but “it may be time to revisit this issue.” – 30 – CNS-12-14-05