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Beyond the Books uncovers hundreds of potential health issues in Salt Lake County schools

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Beyond the Books uncovers hundreds of potential health issues in Salt Lake County schools (Photo: KUTV)

(KUTV) -- In a sprawling investigation, the 2News Beyond the Books education unit spent months culling through hundreds of Salt Lake County Health Department reports.

The unit worked with Bill Marler, the preeminent food safety attorney in the country, to put together a watch list of items to look for while interpreting the reports.

Marler sued Jack In The Box in 1993 after an E. coli outbreak got more than 700 people sick.

He told 2News to look for these three items:

  1. Dented cans, because they are a breeding ground for botulism,
  2. Food temperatures. This is where food-borne bacteria can grow, and
  3. Dirty equipment. We also kept our eyes open for schools who had high inspection scores (high scores mean you have more violations). Marler says a high score may include non-critical violations that won’t get people sick, but he says it does suggest a lack of attention to detail.

Beyond the Books found 10 schools that had dented cans, 35 schools that had dirty equipment issues, and 16 schools that had food temperature problems.

Five schools - Hunter, and Riverton Highs, Ridgecrest, Daybreak and Oakdale Elementary schools especially caught our eye.

Let’s start in the Jordan School District where two schools had some issues. Riverton High School, for example, had issues with employees not washing their hands, and with items on our watch list.

In one report, milk was too warm, chicken wasn’t warm enough and there were several reports of damaged and dirty equipment.

Jana Cruz, the nutrition director for Jordan Schools wasn’t able to answer many specific questions about the reports arguing they lacked a certain amount of detail.

However, she says food is only dangerous if it is held at the incorrect temperature for more than four hours. Cruz says lunches are served within two-hour window at Riverton High.

At Hunter High, five of the last six inspection reports they had included two of the three problems on our watch list.

For example, sour cream, salsa, and cut tomatoes were all too warm and the inside of the ice machine was dirty. The inspection also included a report that the school was keeping outdated bologna.

Ben Horsley with Granite Schools says hiring at Hunter has been an issue, and he says, because of these reports, they have taken measures to solve the problems. He said:

We’ve been using an outside contractor until July this year when we terminated that contract.

In the Canyons District, Oakdale Elementary has had a history of some marginal health inspection reports. Including reports of dirty equipment, and food temperature issues.

Oakdale’s scores have remained in the double digits for years, but Canyons Nutrition Director Sabathian Varas says the issues in the health inspection reports would not have gotten kids sick.

He says at Ridgecrest the scores have been improving, “if you look at all of the scores they are getting better,” says Varas.

That, however, is not the case at Oakdale Elementary, where it has a history of dirty equipment and food temperature issues.

Oakdale scores have remained in the double digits and have been getting worse. The numbers have increased in the last four inspections, from a 14, to a 16, 17, and recently a 23.

Varas says that is concerning but he says his schools are also having trouble with hiring.

Varas and Cruz both agree that health inspectors may ding a school for violations that are not dangerous, but instead, err on the side of caution. Varas said:

I think they are nitpicky in a good way we really value their relationship with us.

The Salt Lake County Health Department says schools almost always do better than other commercial restaurants. Bill Marler agrees.

But he also says it only takes one mistake to get dozens - or even hundreds - of kids sick. He added:

Maybe you’re just catching them on a bad day, the problem is, a bad day in food safety could mean a really bad day for your customers or your students.

If you’d like to look up your kids school, or any restaurant you may click here or follow this link https://public.cdpehs.com/UTEnvPbl/VW_EST_PUBLIC/ShowVW_EST_PUBLICTablePage.aspx

You can follow award-winning 2News Reporter Chris Jones on Facebook and Twitter.