Food fight: Massachusetts school cafeteria inspections suck

Sara Brown, Husna Haq, and Hannah McBride, journalism students at Boston University, got their feature on school cafeteria food safety inspections published in the Boston Globe this morning. They’d been working on it for much of last semester, and I spent some time on the phone with Sara and provided some background. Good for them; glad the Globe is still around to publish such features. Highlights below.

At an elementary school in Billerica, the sewage smell was so strong it forced a nauseated health inspector to leave after 15 minutes. During a five-week period in Framingham, 17 mice were caught in an elementary school’s kitchen storage area. And in a Foxborough middle school, a complaint of hair in the food prompted an inquiry by a local health inspector.

School cafeteria inspections in communities throughout Greater Boston last year found problems ranging from expired milk and rotting meat to disposable utensils and a meat slicer stored in employee bathrooms.

But, in many ways, that was the good news.

Those cafeterias were inspected, their problems identified for correction. Cafeterias in 7 percent of private and public elementary and secondary schools across Massachusetts were never inspected at all in the 2007-2008 school year, according to state records. And 38 percent were inspected just once, though federal law requires two health inspections annually.

The Massachusetts data gathered from school districts tell only part of the story.

A closer look at more than 1,000 schools in 157 communities in Greater Boston reveals a slipshod system of local enforcement with virtually no state or federal oversight. …

In Massachusetts, school cafeteria inspections fall under the jurisdiction of local boards of health, typically small groups that are either elected or appointed, depending on the community. There are no minimum education or experience requirements to be a health inspector; candidates need only pass a state-approved performance test and a written exam, which can be taken online through the Food and Drug Administration. The state also sets no minimum qualifications for directors of local boards of health.

"The guy who inspects your car has more training" than some health inspectors, said Michael Moore, food safety coordinator at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. …

In August, Lynn health inspector Frank McNulty was called to Lynn English High School to investigate a foul odor. When he opened the cafeteria freezer, a puff of steam reeking of rotting meat gushed out. "I nearly passed out," McNulty said. "I’ve never dealt with something like that before."

The freezer had shut down, but the condenser was still operating, drawing in hot summer air and cooking hundreds of pounds of meat for weeks. McNulty and food service employees called dozens of cleaning services, but none would take the job. Finally, he contacted a company that cleans up crime scenes.

"They must do dead bodies," he said, "so I figured they’d do this."