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Millions of children eat in school cafeterias that don’t get the twice-yearly health inspections required by Congress to help prevent food poisoning, according to an Associated Press investigation. The complete report is posted on MSNBC’s Web site.

The article states that schools are supposed to get two visits from health inspectors every year. But one in 10 schools did not get inspected at all last year, according to Agriculture Department data obtained by the news agency. A whopping 30 percent of these schools were visited only once.

Here’s a question Ken Kelly, an attorney for the Center for Science in Public Interest, asks that is at the tip of all our tongues: “Do you want to go to a restaurant that hasn’t been inspected?”

Kelly’s group is a consumer group that has already studied school cafeteria safety and has found thousands of schools nationwide to be lacking safety standards, which should be in place by law. Inspection guidelines put in important safeguards that reduce the risk of our children falling sick by ensuring workers wash their hands properly and they keep lunchtime favorites such as pizza hot or milk cold to prevent germs from growing.

The article states that common violations in cafeterias involve wrong temperatures or things like having a open Dumpster outside the cafeteria. Recent food poisoning outbreaks in everything from peanut butter and spinach to chicken and baby food, have people even more concerned about food safety in our schools. The inspection rules, which are apparently being violated, participate in the federal school lunch program, which provides free and reduced-priced meals to children from low-income families. Here are some numbers from the Department of Agriculture.

According to the department, out of 94,132 schools reporting in the 2005-2006 school year, 10 percent were not inspected at all; 29 percent were inspected once and only 61 percent were inspected at least twice a year, as required. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has also dropped its safety inspections over the last three years.

So is it any surprise to anyone that we’re having all these outbreaks relating to food-borne illnesses and deaths from food-poisoning? It’s state and local authorities that are at fault. It’s their responsibility to schedule inspections and many health departments are severely understaffed, especially in small towns and rural areas. Why are they understaffed?

So cafeteria workers and managers are left to self-police themselves. Self policing almost always decays into a loss of appreciation for the reasoning behind safety procedures, then a failure to follow the procedures, resulting in contamination of food and eventually more widespread food poisoning, this time in our school systems.

The bottom line is the health and safety of our nation’s entire primary and secondary school system is at peril because the agencies responsible for policing school cafeterias themselves are not policed or well managed.

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