Some La. school cafeteria inspections lagging

In September, health inspectors in Ascension Parish discovered pink scum, a type of bacteria, in the ice machines at the Dutchtown High and Duplessis Primary school cafeterias.

In East Baton Rouge Parish, health inspectors in October discovered insects crawling around the lunch room of Progress Elementary.

And in Livingston Parish, inspectors found a rodent infestation at the Denham Springs Junior High cafeteria last May and roaches at the Albany High cafeteria in April 2011.

Despite those findings, school and health officials in the three parishes could produce no documentation of formal follow-up inspections to determine if the potential health issues had been addressed.

And for the past two years, many public school cafeterias in Ascension Parish did not receive the required twice-a-year health inspections, placing its schools among the 12 percent statewide failing to undergo those federally mandated inspections. By law, that could result in the loss of federal funds for school lunch and breakfast programs.

In Louisiana, two state agencies deal with school cafeterias: the Department of Education, which administers federal school lunch funds, and the Office of Public Health, which inspects school cafeterias.

Why some school lunch rooms in Ascension Parish were not being inspected, even after the school district requested them, was a question OPH officials couldn’t answer.

“The schools should have been inspected twice (a year),” said Stephen Weiter, sanitation manager for the OPH office in Ascension Parish. “I’m not sure why they weren’t done.”

“We’re doing what we’re supposed to do be doing,” said Johnny Balfantz, spokesman for Ascension Parish Schools. “If they don’t come and do the inspections, the (state Department of Education) says we are not liable.”

The inspection reports for 2010-11 and 2011-12 for Ascension, East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge and Livingston parishes — the four largest school districts in the Baton Rouge area — show no documentation of twice-a-year inspections at Ascension schools. The reports do show the East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge and Livingston school districts met that requirement.

The state Department of Education annually reports to the U.S. Department of Agriculture the number of inspections at schools across the state, said Terri Romine-Ortega, a spokesman with USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.

The agency’s latest report, for the 2010-11 school year, shows nearly 200 of 1,625 school cafeterias in Louisiana, or about 12 percent, were inspected only once. The report shows 37 cafeterias were not inspected at all and another 75 schools failed to submit inspection data to the education department.

The report also shows 81 percent of the school cafeterias were inspected at least twice, and some more often than that.

Romine-Ortega said U.S. agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in 2010 urged state governors to emphasize the two-inspections-a-year requirement.

“We are concerned that not all schools are receiving two food safety inspections, but realize that non-compliance is often due to factors that schools cannot control, such as insufficient funds and staff, and lack of local public health inspectors in small towns and rural settings,” Romine-Ortega said in an email. “Schools that fail to obtain two food safety inspections receive technical assistance and are required to demonstrate they have taken steps to request two inspections from the appropriate state and local agency.”

No disciplinary action has been taken by the USDA against any schools, state officials say. Barry Landry, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said USDA has never asked the state to remove any school from its lunch and breakfast programs for not undergoing the twice-a-year inspections.

About 17 percent of school cafeterias in Ascension were not inspected twice by the OPH during the 2010-11 school year, according to the state education department, and that figure more than doubled during the 2011-12, when 38 percent were inspected only once.

Landry said school systems are responsible for requesting the twice-a-year health inspections from OPH, a practice that seems to vary among the Ascension, East Baton Rouge, Livingston and West Baton Rouge school districts.

Stephanie Kinchen, child nutrition program supervisor for Livingston Parish Schools, said she stays in constant contact with the parish’s sanitarian to ensure the school system’s cafeterias are inspected.

East Baton Rouge Parish Schools spokeswoman Susan Nelson said the school district has never had to submit a request to DHH to have school lunchrooms inspected.

And Vivian Landry, the food service consultant for the West Baton Rouge Parish school system, said she reaches out to DHH when she realizes near the end of the school year that some cafeterias need a second inspection.

According to the Department of Education inspection report for Ascension Parish, released through a public records request, Duplessis Primary, Galvez Primary School, Lakeside Primary School, Prairieville Middle and Prairieville Primary were inspected by the parish’s health department only once in the 2010-11 school year.

The following year, 11 Ascension Parish schools failed to undergo the two required inspections: Ascension Head Start, Donaldsonville High, Donaldsonville Marine Institute, Duplessis Primary, Dutchtown High, Dutchtown Middle, Dutchtown Primary, East Ascension High, Oak Grove Primary, Prairieville Middle and Spanish Lake Primary.

Records indicate the school district emailed the manager of the parish’s health department, alerting him about the issue.

J.T. Lane, assistant secretary for the Office of Public Health, said the lack of inspections in Ascension Parish fell on the shoulders of Weiter, the sanitation manager for the parish. Lane said local health inspectors didn’t have a detailed work schedule.

“That’s one of the things we are going to be introducing,” Lane said. “It’s our legal responsibility to conduct health inspections.”

But he added that no one from the state Department of Education has contacted him to say there’s a problem.

Lane said that because of changes made in December, all Ascension Parish schools are on track to be inspected twice by the end of the current school year.

Lane said OPH is aware of problems with its statewide Retail Food Program, which directs inspections of school lunchrooms as well as restaurants, meat markets, hotels and grocery stores.

A Legislative Auditor’s report of the program released in November made no specific findings about school cafeterias. The report did note OPH rarely used formal enforcement actions to address violations, and that its inspection results weren’t being fully disclosed to the public for all the sites, both retail and schools, that it inspects.

Lane said uneven staffing among regions and other issues were hampering the inspection program.

Also, the program lacked a centralized tracking and reporting system for field inspections, which is why schools in some districts were inspected more frequently than in others, he said.

He said schools should be inspected twice a year regardless of whether they request it.

Lane said the agency is revamping its inspection program, ensuring re-inspections are formally documented and posted online as well — especially when school cafeterias are cited for critical violations, like the insect problem recorded at Progress Elementary and the pink scum discovered in the ice machines at Dutchtown High and Duplessis Primary School.

Lane said re-inspections are required if a food establishment receives five or more uncorrected noncritical violations, or one or more uncorrected critical violations.

Critical violations, if left uncorrected, are more likely to cause food-borne illnesses and food contamination, according to the OPH website. However, noncritical violations, like unclean walls and ceilings, are not directly related to food-borne illness, the site states.

Sanitarians are allowed to use their professional judgment to determine how long an establishment will given to correct violations, Lane said.

“A lot of times they may not have filed an inspection form (for re-inspections); they may have just gone out and made sure violations were corrected,” Lane said. “The re-inspections are not going to be informal anymore. There will be another inspection done and documented.”

Lane said if federal officials have concerns about school cafeteria inspections, he is willing to meet with them to iron out any kinks.

“We want to be good partners for them,” he said.