Schooled on food: The county should put cafeteria reports online
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It should come as a relief for parents that local school cafeterias do a far better job of following safe food practices than restaurants. It would be even better if their Allegheny County Health Department inspection reports were available online so the public could see for themselves.
The Post-Gazette's Patricia Sabatini, who has studied the issue of food safety in restaurants, found that while inspections in that industry routinely turn up trouble, the opposite was true among kitchens at public and private schools, concession stands and day care centers. Of roughly 1,000 reports she reviewed from 2011 and the first three months of this year, 70 percent had no violations at all.
In addition to the lack of problems highlighted in the reports, her investigation found that 25 percent of school inspections contained "diamonds" for extra effort in at least one of 10 categories such as sanitization practices and employees' knowledge of safe cooking temperatures.
The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, which inspects schools and restaurants in other counties, also reported that problems in school cafeterias are a rarity. So why is it easier for schools than restaurants to comply with safety reguations?
The health department's Guillermo Cole said they have less extensive menus, with many set up to reheat pre-packaged meals rather than cook from scratch. Lunch rooms typically have lower employee turnover than restaurants and, probably related, they have multiple employees who have been certified in safe practices.
The cafeteria reports obtained by the Post-Gazette are available at post-gazette.com. But parents and taxpayers who want to review reports for the dining halls where their children eat and the school kitchens they fund can't do so easily. They must file formal requests under the state's Right to Know law, then either visit the health department's office in Lawrenceville or pay 25 cents per page to get copies.
In a world full of computers, that's ridiculous.
Restaurant reports are available on the county health department's website, but the school reports must be reformatted for the computer system in order for them to be posted. The health department says that's a goal. For the sake of public access, it should be a high priority.
First Published June 6, 2012 12:00 am