According to Connecticut state law, all Yale residential college dining halls must be inspected by the city four times a year. But in recent years, New Haven’s fiscal problems have not allowed for this type of scrutiny. As a result, none of the residential college dining halls has been inspected since 2002, according to New Haven Health Department records.
Operating out of the ninth floor suite of a high rise on Meadow Street, the Environmental Health division of the Health Department is responsible for the large job of inspecting approximately 1,000 eating establishments in New Haven. Based on this large number, Senior Sanitarian Michael Parisi estimated that the department should have 14 inspectors. But he said a more realistic ideal staff would consist of six inspectors.
Right now the department has two. And with only two inspectors and 1,000 eating establishments, members of the department all reluctantly agree that something simply has to give. Yale, which has always done well on its inspections and which has never been their main area of concern, is now being overlooked by a department that has no choice but to prioritize.
Parisi, who began inspecting Yale dining establishments in 1995, said it would not make sense to focus too much energy on Yale.
“Yale has always done very well,” Parisi said. “They’re on the ball, and we never find anything critical enough [to make us worry about them]. You have to pick and choose; you can only do so much.”
Parisi said the inspectors must first respond to food poisoning incidents, complaints, and other potential problems before they proceed with routine inspections.
Paul Kowalski, director of environmental health, agreed with Parisi and pointed out that the financial burden is due in part to problems with state aid, which accounts for 52 percent of the city’s budget.
“Public health is the silent service that’s out there and often takes the heat,” Kowalski said. “The mayor has been very supportive, but we have to keep in mind the reality of the budget.”
Kowalski went on to explain that since the Health Department does not have the funding to pay its inspectors high wages, many inspectors-in-training come to the Elm City, work for a few months, receive their certifications, and then leave for better markets. Kowalski said, though, that he is currently advertising to fill two new positions and has identified two possible candidates.
In the meantime, however, many students said they were alarmed when they heard that the dining halls had not been inspected since 2002.
“Well, considering that I’ve just been reading Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle’ about the meat-packing industry and unsanitary food conditions, I find that kind of disgusting and would much prefer for them to inspect according to Connecticut state law,” Julia Pudlin ’06 said. “However, I haven’t had any problems with illness, so maybe what you don’t know can’t hurt you.”
Though Health Department officials asserted that Yale has maintained a good track record, past inspections of University facilities have not always yielded perfect scores. Many dining halls have received failing scores at some point in recent years. To pass Connecticut’s inspection, an establishment must score 80 out of 100 points. A score lower than an 80 necessitates a reinspection to make sure that the appropriate changes and corrections have been made.
In February 2002, the Ezra Stiles-Morse College Dining Hall received a 76 before reinspection. Parisi noted in the report that there were problems surrounding good hygiene practices and handwashing facilities.
Other inspections noted when toxic items were not properly stored. Parisi wrote in Branford’s inspection in 2002 that bread and rolls should not be stored in the stairwell next to the cleaning equipment.
Yet despite these unique problems, Yale dining establishments on the whole have received positive reviews from the Health Department. And taking into account the city’s current inability to provide the necessary oversight, Yale Dining Services has been forced to become all the more vigilant and self-monitored.
“The management controls the staff very well and the staff are very conscientious of their work,” Parisi said.
Parisi and Kowalski both emphasized the fact that the majority of Yale workers –all managers, all cooks, and the majority of food handlers — are “Serve Safe” certified.
Serve Safe is a nationally recognized program that trains food workers in sanitary practices. The program emphasizes the importance of handwashing, avoidance of cross contamination, clean work surfaces, correct storage temperatures and other such precautions.
For the most part, such an emphasis on safety and cleanliness has proven successful. Charles Bennett, purchasing and facilities manager of Yale Dining Services, said that there has not been an outbreak of food-borne illness since the early sixties, when potato salad was apparently mishandled at a master’s house.
“We spend a lot of time trying to make sure we have a safe environment,” Bennett said. “It’s a great responsibility, and we just do the best we can.”
Janet D’Agostino, manager of marketing and communications for Yale Dining Services, agreed.
“The last thing anybody wants is for anyone who’s eating food in our dining halls to get sick,” D’Agostino said.
Bennett, who has been at Yale for 35 years, said Yale Dining Services has been improving despite the lack of pressure from the Health Department.
“Yale hasn’t spared any expense in creating new facilities to meet the standards,” Bennett said. “We’ve only gotten better and we continue to get better.”
Bennett said that although he sympathized with the city’s budgetary constraints, he would like to see more city inspections in the future.
“They inspect Yale less often than they inspect other places because smaller places don’t have Yale’s resources to ensure safety,” Bennett said.
Elizabeth Jordan ’06 said she was disgusted by the lack of inspections, but not completely taken aback.
“I think it’s pretty gross that they haven’t been inspected since 2002,” Jordan said. “But unfortunately, between what I see coming out of the dining hall and what I know about New Haven’s resources, I’m just not that surprised.”
Kowalski said he would work to get inspectors to Yale in the near future and said he would always respond to specific concerns.