Outdated food may be on menu

Councilor objects to school practices

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By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / March 3, 2011

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Cafeterias in the Boston public schools keep taco meat, cheese, and other food in freezers well past the expiration and best-by dates printed on packages. That practice was made public yesterday by Councilor at Large John R. Connolly, who inspected four school kitchens after hearing that frozen food in some schools dated to 2009.

The School Department acknowledged that out-of-date food remained in its freezers, but a spokesman said its storage procedures were in accordance with federal guidelines.

To underscore that point, school officials opened one of their kitchens to the media for inspection and circulated a 2010 memo from the US Department of Agriculture that described expiration and use-by dates as recommendations, not requirements. Properly frozen food can remain safe indefinitely, according to the government, although quality and nutritional value deteriorate over time. The USDA suggests, for example that frozen ground beef is best if consumed within nine months, while frozen ground turkey is freshest if eaten within three months.

At yesterday’s weekly City Council meeting, Connolly shared nine photographs with his colleagues showing food that had apparently been frozen as long as two years, well past most of the USDA’s freezer storage guidelines. The councilor from West Roxbury ordered a hearing to investigate the issue.

“I want them to come in here and assure us that the food is safe,’’ said Connolly, who chairs of the council’s Education Committee. “We’re not talking about salmonella and E. coli. But we are talking about food that has likely lost much of its nutritional value.’’

The School Department defended its food safety record serving more than 60,000 meals a day, including breakfast, lunch, and snacks. Its roughly 250 cafeteria managers and workers are certified by SafeServ, the national standard for the food service industry.

“We go by USDA guidelines,’’ said Matthew F. Wilder, spokesman for the School Department. “If there is food that is beyond that, we have trained cafeteria workers who examine the food. Our staff members eat the food themselves. That says a lot about how committed they are that these are good meals.’’

According to USDA guidelines, manufacturers are not required to stamp expiration or other dates on most food packages. “Best-if-used-by’’ dates mean that the product will have the best flavor or quality before that day.

“At some point after that date, the product will change very gradually in taste, color, texture, or nutrient content,’’ according to the guidelines. “But, the product may be wholesome, nutritious, and safe long after that date.’’

Yesterday morning, Connolly visited cafeterias in four schools — Orchard Gardens, Boston Latin Academy, Curley, and English High School — and said he found expired food in every kitchen and not just in the freezer. He also took photographs of boxes of SunButter, a nut-free peanut butter substitute, that had a “use by’’ date of September 2010. Canned diced tomatoes dated to 2008, but the cafeteria manager had segregated it from the food being served to students, he said.

A significant part of the problem, Connolly said, could stem from a cold storage facility contracted by the USDA in Wilmington, which is almost 20 miles north of Boston. The facility serves cafeterias across Massachusetts, and Connolly alleged that some of the food arrives at schools already out of date.

A USDA spokeswoman said by e-mail yesterday that the federal government was working with the state Department of Education to address the assertion that old food is coming from the warehouse, Wilmington Cold Storage. Owners of the facility could not be reached yesterday for comment.

Parents picking up their children yesterday afternoon at the Curley School had yet to hear about expired food in freezers. But just after 2 p.m., a television news helicopter hovered above the school on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain, signaling that something was happening.

A father of a first-grader said he thinks the breakfasts served at the school are quite good. He said that he inspected the food his child was eating yesterday morning and found that the milk and juice were within the sell-by date.

But another father had a much different reaction. “This probably explains why my son comes home less than thrilled with his lunch every day,’’ said Rob Vlock, whose son in first grade.

The issue came to Connolly’s attention, he said, when several people familiar with the school system’s food service operation approached him with concerns about old frozen food. Connolly declined to identify his sources, but he said he became alarmed when he saw an e-mail sent Tuesday by the School Department’s head of food and nutrition services that instructed cafeteria managers to set aside cheese sticks stamped with the date June 20, 2010.

The photographs caused a stir at yesterday’s City Council meeting.

“I would never feed that to someone in my own family,’’ said Councilor at Large Felix G. Arroyo. “We all know the saying, ‘When in doubt, throw it out. That should have been thrown out in 2008.’’

Billy Baker of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andrew Ryan can be reached at