- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2005

Federal law covers public schools

Montgomery County cannot comply with a new federal law mandating food-safety inspections twice a year in public schools because it doesn’t have enough inspectors, health department officials said.

The mandatory inspections are part of the Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization Act, which went into effect this school year and includes public schools participating in the federally funded school lunch or breakfast program.

The new guidelines are meant to prompt more vigilant food-safety monitoring in the cafeterias, where improper food handling and storage can lead to food-borne illness outbreaks, such as E. coli and salmonella.

Prince George’s County officials said Friday the new federal mandate “has had no impact on the operations or processes of its health department.” They also said the health department inspected every school cafeteria at least twice this year and they anticipate meeting the federal requirement in the future, at current staffing levels.

Leila Abrar, of the District’s Department of Health, said the agency “has and continues to conduct food-safety inspections twice a year in all D.C. public schools.”

Kimberly Cordero, spokeswoman for the Fairfax County Health Department, said the agency makes the inspections twice a year and had done so before the federal regulation.

However, Montgomery County, which has the largest school district in Maryland, does not have enough inspectors to increase the number of inspections, said Reed McKee of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services.

“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,” Mr. McKee said.

He said 18 inspectors cover the 194 schools, about 3,000 other food-service facilities and 400 one-day events a year. Right now, high schools and middle schools are getting the required two inspections a year, but the elementary schools are getting only one.

Maryland has long required at least two inspections a year at schools that cooked on-site. But Montgomery County uses one central kitchen for its 125 elementary schools and doesn’t cook in the cafeterias, so it is considered low risk and is inspected only once a year. The satellite kitchen in Rockville is inspected at least three times a year.

Still, the new federal law takes precedence over state regulations, said Alan Brench of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

It also has no penalty for non-compliance, and Mr. McKee said Montgomery County’s health department will continue to set its own priorities until told otherwise.

A review of the school system’s food-safety inspection records from Jan. 1, 2001, through April 26, 2004, shows 109 critical violations out of 2,342 inspections, or fewer 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 U.S. Agriculture Department administers the reauthorization act, but state and local school districts are responsible for ensuring compliance, said Suanne Buggy, an agency spokeswoman.

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