It is 6 o’clock in the evening, and the Davenport College dining hall is packed. Hungry students approach the hot food counters and peer at the nutrition cards before choosing what to pile onto their plates. They ponder their decision: ginger fried rice with shiitake mushroom or vegan bean burrito? The number of calories in the vegan bean burrito, though, may be the least of their worries.
The most recent set of Food Service Inspections Reports for Yale Dining Facilities — obtained by the News through the Freedom of Information Act — reveal health-code violations in all of Yale’s dining halls, ranging from the presence of vermin (Timothy Dwight College, March 18, 2008) to the sale of expired sushi (Cafe at Divinity, February 4, 2008) to the improper storage of toxic chemicals (Davenport College, September 22, 2008). Inspection scores range from a low of 77 out of 100 for Davenport to a high of 93 for the Hall of Graduate Studies dining hall.
Despite student concerns, however, representatives of Yale University Dining Services said in interviews that the violations should not be a cause for concern. YUDS executive director Rafi Taherian said these numbers do not mean that students who eat in dining halls are putting themselves at serious risk. Most of the violations, including ones that substantially lower scores, he said, are for minor infractions.
And, at the end of the day, students said they do not feel the need to change their eating habits.
In the latest round of inspections by the state Department of Public Health — which happened in some dining halls as recently as last week and in others as far back as 2006 — several of the 16 dining facilities for which the News obtained reports received demerits for the same violations. Thirteen of the 16 facilities received demerits for food containers not being stored off the floor, and for problems with food storage, preparation, display, service and transportation. Nine of the facilities were cited for not having clean wiping cloths , and 7 were faulted for having dirty utensils and equipment. Every residential college dining facility except Silliman also received demerits for dirty or improperly constructed floors, walls or ceilings.
Davenport College, which scored a 77 out of 100 on an inspection done last week, had the lowest score of all University dining facilities. Jim Moule, manager of the Davenport dining hall, said Davenport was docked points during the inspection because of two four-point demerits: one for violating the requirement for “toxic items properly stored, labeled, used” and another for cross-connection, back siphonage or backflow between potable and waste water (for which seven other residential college dining halls also given a demerit). Any facility with a four-point demerit, which are reserved for the most serious violations, are required by law to be reinspected within two weeks.
In Davenport, this second violation was caused by missing backflow preventer valves in the water lines going into the oven steamer. These had been missing since Davenport was renovated four years ago, Moule said, and went unnoticed in the opening inspection or in any inspection since. The physical plant has installed the preventers since the Sept. 22 inspection, Moule said.
Yale dining facilities received two other four-point demerits in the inspection reports. The Yale Divinity School cafeteria received a demerit for sushi two days past its expiration date, and the Kline Biology Tower cafeteria, currently closed for renovations, received a demerit for lack of hand-washing facilities for personnel.
The facility with the second-lowest score — tied with the last inspection of Calhoun Dining Hall before it closed for renovation — is the Timothy Dwight dining hall, which received a score of 82 points. The TD dining hall was the only Yale facility that received a demerit for presence of insect or rodents. The manager on duty last Friday evening in the college said “the problem has been corrected” and referred all other questions to YUDS.
Jim Miller, owner of the company that handles pest control for the University, said Yale dining halls have not had a serious mouse problem in ten years and have never had cockroach problems.
“There is an occasional mouse that pops up here and there and some fruit fly issues but . . . Yale staff does a good job staying on top of things,” Miller said.
Taherian said he was not familiar with the specifics of the TD violation, but the issue could have been something as harmless as fruit flies, which are a problem over the summer for many facilities that serve food. While spraying pesticide could solve the problem, Taherian said YUDS prefers to prevent infestations before they become a problem.
An educational opportunity
Paul Kowalski, Environmental Health Program director for the New Haven Health Department, said the scores do not tell the whole story. Scores are a “subjective statement,” he said, that they are not publicly posted because, depending on the situation, a 96 could represent a greater health risk than a 77.
“A missing menu warning is not going to kill you,” Kowalski said.
Taherian said Yale has an “unbelievable relationship with the health department” and Yale has asked health inspectors to be especially rigorous in their inspection of Yale’s facilities. As a result, even with regard to small issues, “[the inspectors] have significantly higher standards for us than they have for regular restaurants on the street” Taherian said.
Kowalsk said Yale is treated the same as every other establishment.
“We do not treat any food service establishment different than any other,” he said.
And Shelly Longo, the senior sanitarian who inspects Yale dining facilities, said that she does not treat dining halls differently than other restaurants while making her rounds. In response, Taherian said he thinks the health department would not publicly acknowledge holding different facilities to different standards. He maintains that there is a special relationship between YUDS and the department.
The average score for Yale’s dining facilities is about the same as the average for 33 New Haven restaurants — including campus favorites Yorkside, Mory’s, Gourmet Heaven and Ivy Noodle — for which the News requested inspection reports. The average score for those restaurants was an 84, one point lower than the average score for Yale dining facilities.
Since dining facilities, like other restaurants, are inspected at most four times a year, the inspections are intended as tools for education on the proper approach to maintaining quality, Kowalski said.
Taherian said Yale uses the inspections as a way to reinforce the staff’s training and as a reminder to always maintain facilities. The violations are not an indicator that a dining hall is unsafe, but rather an extra incentive to keep facilities clean and safe. After each inspection in which a dining hall scores less than 100 percent, Taherian said the manger of the facility must submit an actionable plan to the YUDS director of residential operations.
Moule also stressed that he takes care of violations as soon as they are brought to his attention. In Davenport’s last inspection, he said, the dining hall received a one-point demerit because of a broken — but functioning — hand-soap dispenser in the ladies restroom. The dispenser was replaced in 30 minutes.
Taherian stressed that none of the infractions Yale has received were serious enough to shut a facility down. Kowalski said other restaurants in New Haven sometimes receive scores in the 40s, at which point they are reinspected within 48 hours and shut down if they are still unsafe.
“It is not like we have bad product” Moule said. “I eat my meals here too . . . and we take these violations seriously.”
Close vs. Clean
In interviews, students informed of the health reports seemed largely unconcerned.
Students from Davenport and TD, the two colleges with the lowest overall scores, said the results were a bit worrisome, but would not make them eat in the own dining hall any less frequently. Being close to the dining hall, they said, outweighed most of their concerns about cleanliness.
“Considering as it is my college dining hall, the convenience and the friendly staff will probably keep me coming back” Davenport resident Craig Minoff ’10 said.
Some students even took the reports lightly, fiercely defending their college dining hall with comments such as, “It’s the toxins that make the food taste better” and, “I like the dirt — it adds flavor.”
“Insects are high in protein and rarely carry disease” one TD student said.
“It hasn’t killed us yet. I love TD no matter what” said another.
A few of the Davenport students interviewed joked that they were excited that their college scored the lowest: news of the scores, they said, would make their dining hall less crowded after all.
They could get their wish. After being told the results of the inspections, several non-Davenport students interviewed had mixed reactions. Some said they would not be a factor in deciding where to eat, but others said they would eat at Davenport less often.
“I’ve definitely never had any plastic in my food in Saybrook. I probably won’t be frequenting Davenport too often” Saybrook resident Erica Cooper ’11 said after pulling a square-inch piece of plastic wrapper out of her grilled cheese in Davenport at lunch on Friday.
Students at Trumbull College dining hall, whose score of 91 placed them at the top of the list, said they were not surprised their dining hall came out on top.
“The Trumbull staff is conscientious in every way,” Dounia Bredes ’11, a staff photographer for the News, said.
But while the inspection scores may be one more weapon in the arsenal of college rivalries, Taherian said students should feel safe eating in every dining hall.
“Under no circumstance are students even close to a situation that’s unsafe for them,” he said.