More rewrite: 16 sick with salmonella in Ottawa schools outbreak; kitchen of interest ‘all suppliers regulated, inspected’ of course

A salmonella outbreak has put three children in the hospital in the past few days and Ottawa’s public health department is investigating a catering company that specializes in serving daycares and schools as a possible source of the contamination.

Dr. Isra Levy, the city’s top public-health official. All the cases are in children between the ages of 15 months and 14 years, Levy said, and are concentrated at three schools and one daycare:

Public Health’s investigation is in its early stages, Levy emphasized, with staff still interviewing children and parents to see what food sources they might have in common. But "one name that has come up" is a service called The Lunch Lady, a caterer that delivers hot meals for kids. It has three kitchens in Ottawa, two of them owned by Jonathan Morris. He said the public-health department is focusing on one of his facilities, on Boyd Avenue near Carling and Clyde.

It’s possible that a particular ingredient was contaminated when it arrived, Morris said, which baffles him because all of his suppliers are properly regulated and inspected.

What’s baffling is Morris’ belief that food like produce is regulated and inspected, and that such regulations and inspections make food safe.

The investigation is homing in on one food item that the kitchen prepared, which Morris wouldn’t specify because he doesn’t want to alarm parents whose children might have eaten it. "If they have a sick child, the thing to do is go to the doctor," Morris said.

Inspectors from Levy’s department have been all over the Boyd Avenue kitchen, he said, "and so far, they’ve found nothing."

The Boyd Avenue kitchen employs about 20 people, including part-timers, Morris said. In five years as a Lunch Lady franchisee, nothing like this has ever happened, he said.

According to public inspection reports from the city, Morris’s Boyd Avenue kitchen has been in full compliance with health regulations in its last three inspections, including one on Monday – the one conducted after the health department knew about the salmonella outbreak – and one as recently as Feb. 21.

Shawn Ward, who runs the other Lunch Lady franchise in Ottawa, said her kitchen has been visited by a public-health inspector and given an all-clear. "None of my schools are involved," Ward said.

More food prep means more food safety basics; lunch ladies going gourmet

I was always more of a brown-bagger when it came to lunch. The high school cafeteria food was gross – although I did have a penchant for their ham and cheese melts on some sort of white wallpaper bun – but cost was the primary factor. Why would anyone pay for stuff that could be made at home for nothing when parental-types bought the food.

That was in Canada. The U.S. school lunch program is a little different.

And now the lunch ladies are developing their culinary skills to go along with the demand for so-called healthier foods.

Dawn Cordova, a longtime school cafeteria worker attending Denver Public Schools’ first "scratch cooking" training this summer, told Associated Press,

"It’s more work to cook from scratch, no doubt."

Cordova and about 40 other Denver lunch ladies spent three weeks mastering knife skills, baking and chopping fruits and vegetables for some of the school district’s first salad bars.

Denver is among countless school systems in at least 24 states working to revive proper cooking techniques in its food service staff.

The city issued its 600 or so cafeteria employees white chefs’ coats and hats and plans to have all its kitchen staff trained in basic knife skills within three years.

Well-known area chefs visit for primers on food safety, chopping technique and making healthy food more appetizing to young diners (hint: kids prefer veggies cut into funky shapes, not boring carrot sticks).

Chefs say that schools embraced processed food so completely that many newer cafeterias lack the basics of a production kitchen, such as produce sinks, oven hoods or enough cold storage to keep meat and produce fresh.

No mention of microbial food safety, but with all the extra kitchen prep, the risk potential increases, especially with cross-contamination. Here’s hoping they master the basics unlike the TV cooks who routinely serve up microbiological disasters.