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Officials dispute Weston cafeteria criticism

Mark Cooper is director of health for the Westport Weston Health District. —Patricia Gay photo

Mark Cooper, director of health for the Westport Weston Health District, reviews an inspection file. —Patricia Gay photo

Health district and school officials from Weston say they would give a failing grade to a recent story that was critical about Weston cafeteria inspections.

The story, titled Pass/Fail: Schools cafeteria’s report card, was published in a number of Hearst Corporation publications on Jan. 5. It claimed Weston public schools had a “dirty little secret” about the cafeterias where its students eat, and singled out Weston Middle School for having more “flunked inspections” than any other school in Fairfield County.

Mark Cooper, director of health for the Westport Weston Health District, called the story “inaccurate and incomplete.” Weston Schools Superintendent Colleen Palmer issued a response to parents on Tuesday, Jan. 8, stating, “At no time have our students been exposed to unsafe food and/or conditions.”

When it comes to food safety, Mr. Cooper said Weston Public Schools follow very good operating procedures and are serving safe food prepared in safe conditions. Recent inspection reports, he said, bear that out.

Guidelines

The Connecticut Department of Health has strict guidelines for school cafeterias. School kitchens must meet two circumstances to earn a passing inspection grade: They must earn at least 80 out of 100 points on the inspection report; and the report must be free of any four-point deductions for any single item.

Deductions can range from one point to four points. Examples of four-point deductions include: Not having an adequate and safe water source, improperly stored toxic items, and not meeting food temperature requirements during storage, preparation, display, service or transportation.

Some items that don’t rise to the level of a four-point deduction are: The presence of insects/rodents (two point deduction), or the presence of live birds, turtles or other animals (one point deduction).

Jeff Andrews, the health department’s chief sanitarian, said the kitchens in the Weston schools are inspected by his department every three months, but not in the summer when they aren’t in use.

In the most recent inspections, conducted Oct. 19, 2012, the East House and South House kitchens at Hurlbutt Elementary School earned a score of 99. The one point violation reported in both kitchens was for a worn seal around the refrigerator doors. The inspection report said the kitchens were very clean and food protection was very good.

Weston Intermediate School earned a perfect score of 100. “It’s not easy to get a perfect score, but that kitchen was very impressive,” Mr. Andrews said.

Weston Middle School and Weston High School both got scores of 97. “There were no major issues to report at those schools,” Mr. Andrews said.

Nothing to hide

When it comes to health inspections, the schools have nothing to hide, Dr. Palmer said. She said the district goes to great lengths to keep the kitchens well-maintained and its food safe. “The state requires us to have five certified food safety professionals in the kitchens — we have 10, double that amount,” she said.

The Pass/Fail story claimed Weston Middle School flunked more inspections than other schools in the county. Mr. Cooper said it’s important to look at the nature of the violations in order to get the full picture.

Since April 30, 2007, the middle school’s inspection scores have been: 93, 92, 92, 94, 88, 89, 94, 90, 90, 89, 91, 95, 86, 90, 100, 98, 95, 94, 96, and 97.

In April 2007, the school received a score of 93, but got a four-point deduction for not having an additional handwashing sink in the kitchen. Mr. Andrews said the state had recently changed its regulations and while the kitchen had one handwashing sink, another one was also required. The school was cited for that same four-point violation in several subsequent inspections.

Jo-Ann Keating, the district’s director of finance and operations, said she got a call immediately after the 2007 inspection and was told a new sink was needed. Because the space in the middle school kitchen was tight, a special design had to be created for the sink and it took time to figure out a plan and rework the plumbing. But the new sink was eventually added.

Mr. Cooper said it was important to look at the nature of every violation, be it a four-point one for a sink, or a two-point one for evidence of mice or rats. “You need to keep things in perspective. The lack of the additional handwashing sink was a four-point violation, but in no way did it compromise food safety. There was no risk to children,” he said.

Jeff Andrews, chief sanitarian for the Westport Weston Health District, reviews the inspection file on the Weston Middle School. —Patricia Gay photo

Jeff Andrews, chief sanitarian for the Westport Weston Health District, reviews the inspection file on the Weston Middle School. —Patricia Gay photo

The middle school kitchen received four-point violations in 2009 for not having certain foods at proper temperatures. In several instances, the food involved was tomatoes or items from the salad bar. Another instance involved tuna that wasn’t cold enough.

Andre Santelli, director of culinary services for Chartwells, the schools’ food service provider, said when food was discovered not to be at the proper temperature it was discarded and not served. During the inspections, lessons were learned, Mr. Santelli said. “When you’re at home and take a can of tuna from the shelf and make a sandwich, it’s room temperature, and it’s fine. We learned that tuna, even mixed with cold ingredients and put over a bowl of ice, can still be too warm in the middle, even though it hasn’t been out for more than two hours. So now we refrigerate the cans of tuna and we don’t have temperature problems with it,” he said.

Dr. Palmer said when inspections revealed there was faulty equipment like a cooling unit or warming cabinet, they were repaired.

One of the purposes of the inspections, Mr. Santelli said, is to uncover problems and solve them. “I work closely with the health department on any issue that is brought up, whether it’s mechanical or human error. Food safety has never been compromised at the schools,” he said.

Finally, Mr. Cooper was critical of a statement in the article about “potentially problematic communication issues within the [health] department” because he was not initially aware the middle school had failed back-to-back inspections going back to 2008.

Mr. Cooper said he wasn’t given the chance to explain that he wasn’t familiar with the 2008 inspection reports because he wasn’t employed by the health district until 2009. “I told the reporter I wanted to review the 2008 file and asked her to call me the next day. I was ready then to talk to her, but she never called back. I never heard from her again,” Mr. Cooper said.

He said the health department did not close the middle school cafeteria despite back-to-back failed inspections because the food being served was safe. “If the problem involved improper food handling practices, that would raise concerns. But the lack of an extra sink, and food temperatures are things that can be more easily fixed, and there was no risk to the children,” he said.

If Weston parents want to read the health department’s inspection reports, they are available in Dr. Keating’s office at the Town Hall Annex. The reports are also available at the health department’s office in Westport.

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