AUGUSTA, Maine — Federal law requires every school cafeteria be inspected twice a year by state health inspectors, and even though only 3 percent of Maine’s 666 schools are meeting that standard aimed at preventing food poisoning, state officials say the cafeterias are safe.
“We want to make sure that our children are being safely served in schools and wherever else they are eating in restaurants and other eating establishments,” said Dr. Dora Mills, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control. “The bottom line is that we feel very comfortable that our children are being safely served at school. Our schools have an excellent, excellent track record.”
Congress mandated two yearly inspections in 2004 for all schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program, which provides low-cost meals to poor students. While Mills says every school in Maine gets inspected every year, very few get a second inspection. In fact, Maine has the worst record for frequency of inspections in the nation.
“We base our inspections on risk,” Mills said. “If we find a problem the first time we go back with additional inspections until the problem is fixed. We can’t afford to do annual inspections; our inspectors are stretched pretty thin.”
A quick look at the math shows how thin. Mills has nine inspectors to visit every restaurant and eating establishment in the state that is supposed to have yearly inspections. They total more than 10,000 facilities. That means every inspector needs to make five inspections a day, five days a week every week for the year.
Of course, with holidays and vacation time, no inspector works a full 52 weeks a year. Causing more pressure on the inspectors is that they are also charged with inspecting businesses like tattoo parlors, hotels, motels and tanning booths on top of their food inspections.
In all, the total facilities that need inspection total more than 12,000 establishments.
“Yes, they are stretched very thin, “Mills said.
Walter Beesley, director of School Nutrition at the Department of Education agreed with Mills that school cafeterias are being inspected adequately and meeting standards. He said DOE also does inspections, but not for the same reasons as the sanitarians from the Maine CDC and not with the same frequency.
“I have been doing this for 22 years and only twice can I remember having to call a sanitarian in because of what I found,” he said.
Beesley said the two state agencies work well together and his office will move quickly to provide additional training at a school cafeteria if a sanitarian reports a problem in the way food is being handled or prepared.
“I think our school cafeterias have a great record over the years, “he said.
But, Beesley said, he understands why Congress passed the twice a year inspections requirement with several school cafeterias in other states not mandated to have any inspections prior to 2004.
“I remember there were some pretty bad situations in some other states,” he said. “I understand why Congress acted on this.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the school nutrition programs, warns programs could loose federal funds if they do not meet the requirements of the law. But, the agency adds no school in the nation has been penalized with USDA focusing instead on encouraging compliance.
Mills said the state could meet the requirement if it had additional staff, but Congress has provided no funding to pay for the inspections that it requires.
“This really is another unfunded federal mandate,” Mills said. “These are well-trained inspectors and the inspections take time, particularly if they do find something that needs to be addressed. When that happens, we keep going back and inspecting until it is fixed.”
She said a decade ago the program had 19 inspectors, but positions were cut to help meet one of the state’s series of budget shortfalls. She said the cafeteria issue does point out the lack of resources to meet state laws requiring restaurants and other establishments be regularly inspected to protect the public health.
“We are taking steps to do more with less by being more efficient,” Mills said.
She acknowledged the record keeping by the inspectors has been paper documents and tracking inspection of all the facilities has been difficult. She said that is being improved through the use of new hand held data devices that will allow development of a database that will track all inspections.