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Few School Cafeterias Inspected

Dec 16, 2009 We’ve been following the issue of meats being supplied to this country’s school lunch program that are not always as actively tested for food borne pathogens as some meat used in fast food restaurants. We’ve also been following stories involving outbreaks of Norovirus in schools, most recently an outbreak that sickened hundreds in a Staten Island school over the past week.

Now, USA Today is reporting that school cafeterias are not being vigilantly inspected and people are falling ill as a result, specifically from Norovirus. Norovirus, a group of viruses that cause gastroenteritis are not helped with antibiotics. People become infected by eating food or drinking liquids contaminated with Norovirus; touching surfaces or objects contaminated with Norovirus, and then placing their hand in their mouth; and having direct contact with another person who is infected and showing symptoms. People may feel very sick and vomit many times a day. Sometimes people are unable to drink enough liquids to replenish the liquids lost due to vomiting and diarrhea and can become dehydrated and require special medical attention. Norovirus, which can survive for weeks on surfaces at room temperature, can be difficult to eliminate, and can only be killed with chorine bleach. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers and other preparations are not too helpful.

According to USA Today’s investigation, no food borne sickness is involved with improper food handling as often as Norovirus, causing no less than one-third—7,500—of all of the school-reported food borne illnesses, some 23,000, citing U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data from 1998 through 2007.

USA Today also noted that despite that many Norovirus outbreaks originate in cafeterias, over 8,500 schools never had their kitchens inspected in 2008 and 18,000 did not meet mandates—part of the National School Lunch Program—under the Child Nutrition Act which requires such inspections occur twice yearly. One such mandate requires the wearing of gloves when preparing school lunches.

USA Today’s investigation revealed, among other issues, broad inexperience among food preparers, that most Norovirus infections originate with food handlers, rampant inappropriate cleaning practices, and situations in which meat products were undercooked. "We had some stunning evidence of terrible sanitary conditions in school cafeterias across America, said Senator Dick Durbin (Democrat-Illinois), quoted USA Today. "Kids were at risk," Durbin added.

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