US: 26,500 school cafeterias lack required inspections

Ham and cheese on a bun. That was my 1979 high school staple whenever I needed to inject myself with calories. However, I usually brown bagged lunch, because I hated spending my hard-earned money on crap.

Today’s USA Today reports that data kept by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that norovirus caused at least one-third of the 23,000 food-borne illness cases reported in schools from 1998 through 2007. The toll: about 7,500 sick children, USA TODAY found. Those figures represent just a fraction of all cases. Investigators suspected but couldn’t confirm norovirus in nearly 2,000 additional illnesses in schools during that period, and the CDC says many more cases go unreported.

Although such outbreaks often begin in the cafeteria, more than 8,500 schools failed to have their kitchens inspected at all last year, and another 18,000 fell short of a requirement in the Child Nutrition Act that calls for cafeteria inspections at least twice a year, USA TODAY found. The mandate is part of the National School Lunch Program, which provides food for 31 million schoolchildren across the nation. Almost every school in the United States receives food as part of the program.

The purpose of the inspection requirement is to ensure that the facilities and workers comply with safety and sanitary requirements — from checking food temperatures to wearing gloves.

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the school lunch program, acknowledges that the rule is almost impossible to enforce. It is supposed to be a requirement to receive food as part of the lunch program, but

"The predominant source of norovirus infections are food handlers," says Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety. "If it’s a norovirus infection," he says, kitchen workers "are where I’d look first."