February 1, 2007
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, and DANIEL E. GOREN Courant Staff Writers
Hartford school officials Wednesday defended food safety in their cafeterias, and city health officials joined them in faulting a report rating Hartford last for food safety in a survey of 20 school districts nationwide.
The report by Science in the Public Interest, a Washington nonprofit organization, evaluated school food service in four categories: strictness of the local food code, inspection frequency, critical violations and access to information.
The report was based on local health inspection reports in 2005.
Loni M. Burt, Hartford's director of food services, said the report was based on unfair measurements and said the schools have never had a report of food-borne illnesses. City health officials, meanwhile, faulted the report for using a "model" health code while inspections in Connecticut are conducted under a state health code.
City health-inspection reports have cited problems in Hartford schools, such as rodent droppings on floors and shelves; hand soap not available for workers to wash their hands properly; and chemical spray bottles stored next to food containers. But health inspectors said the schools always respond to their reports, promptly fixing what needs fixing.
The records show that all Hartford schools have been inspected at least once this school year. None of the schools failed, and most received scores of 92 or higher out of 100 points. Hartford Public High School received a perfect score.
The public interest group measured Connecticut's health code against a "model" code drafted by the federal Food and Drug Administration. On a scale of 31 percent to 81 percent, the group rated the state code 54 percent.
Hartford officials said there is no federal requirement to meet the model standards, and in some cases, Connecticut code is stricter than the model.
The report showed Hartford had the highest number of "critical violations," the most common being repair and cleanliness of floors, and not enough sinks for hand washing and sanitation. City schools were rated 10 percent out of a possible 90 percent.
City health officials said what the public interest group defined as a critical violation may not be critical under the state code, and inspectors cite only what violates state code. As for hand-washing sinks, Burt conceded that is a problem in the city's older schools.
If a cafeteria is cited for having fewer hand-washing sinks than required, Burt often must remove important food-preparation equipment to make room for more sinks. Just recently, she said, a machine that cuts vegetables for salads was removed to make room for a sink at Martin Luther King Elementary School. Now, salad is prepared by hand.
The food service also got a low grade for access to information - 29 percent out of a possible 14 to 100 percent. The low grade was because the city does not post inspection information on the Internet, although there is no requirement it do so.
City schools also were faulted for having too few inspections. Last year, the federal requirement for inspections was raised from one to two annually, and city inspectors visited each cafeteria only once.
Burt said she asked health officials to inspect twice this school year, and the second round of inspections has begun.
Students waiting on line for lunch at Bulkeley High School Wednesday said they like the food. Their only complaints were that sometimes, by the last lunch wave, the cafeteria runs out of their favorite fruit and the helpings of Tater Tots are too small.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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