U.Va. dining facilities incur 86 violations in 2017

Aramark, Thomas Jefferson Health District work to keep U.Va. students safe from foodborne illness

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 Health inspections are required at each of the 24 University dining facilities every year. 

Kelsey Grant | Cavalier Daily

University dining facilities incurred 86 total violations during health department inspections in 2017, according to a review of Thomas Jefferson Health District health inspection reports by The Cavalier Daily. 

Data was gathered from 17 on-Grounds facilities and seven health system facilities. While most facilities had between zero and four violations at each inspection, Observatory Hill Dining Hall had eight violations during a March 13 inspection, and Crossroads had ten violations during an Oct. 18 inspection.  

According to Eric Myers, an environmental health supervisor with the Virginia Department of Health, while there is no real average number of violations due to the diverse range of food preparation sites that the Department of Health inspects, he estimates that an average number of priority violations per inspection would fall between one and four. 

Myers said there is not a cutoff number of violations that will result in closing a facility. However, a single instance of an “imminent health hazard,” such as a sewage backflow or power outage, could result in administrative suspension of the food-service permit. 

He also notes that violations are “a snapshot in time”, and circumstances such as a recent change in management or newly trained staff can be reflected in the number of violations found.

“When facilities have higher number of violations, usually the inspector will ask for a written compliance plan and then conduct a follow-up inspection to verify that good changes are being made,” Myers said.

Violations fall into three categories — priority, priority foundation and core. Priority violations refer to provisions that contribute “directly to the elimination, prevention or reduction to an acceptable level, hazards associated with foodborne illness or injury.” These are the most serious violations and include infractions such as holding food at the incorrect temperature and failing to prevent contamination. These were also the most common violation — 50 percent of violations found were considered “priority.”

Priority foundation violations regard provisions meant to support or facilitate one or more priority items, while core violations refer to provisions relating to more general sanitation and maintenance.

Scott Aebersold, marketing manager for Aramark, spoke about the importance of maintaining safety standards and working towards promoting practices to provide the best dining experience to University students. 

“Everything we do as UVA Dining starts with a culture of safety first,” Aebersold said in an email. “Our approach to food safety spans the entire flow of product from traceability, receiving, storage, preparation and finally serving of the product. Our continuous training cycle includes national education certifications in addition to local training and development for all staff members.” 

All employees are required to review food preparation and safety procedures during regular meetings, prepare food according to specified recipes and production processes and use quality control processes. In addition, they need to monitor all temperature logs, sanitation schedules and employee hygiene standards, as well as ensure that all dining services comply with health codes.

Myers also said annual inspections ensure that no imminent food safety issues are being ignored.

“Our primary goal is to work well with each food service operator and to prevent foodborne illness, to pass along updated science information,” Myers said. “We’re a subsidized audit for them, but it’s required under their permits to get periodic inspections. So we come in and our goal is to help them identify anything that could be a danger or risk factor.”

During inspections, inspectors present their official ID and ask for a manager or operator to accompany them in order to ask about daily practices in the facility. Inspectors help workers identify the “Big Five” — the leading causes of foodborne illness — during inspections.

The “Big Five” include maintaining proper hot and cold holding temperatures, enforcing employee handwashing, preventing contamination of equipment or cross-contamination onto clean food, maintaining proper cooking temperatures and ensuring that food comes from approved sources.

“We want to be community partners,” Myers said. “And the U.Va. community is a very important partnership for us because of the size — there’s lots of students and staff. The responsibility if something goes wrong can be multiplied, so I think there’s understanding on all sides about the importance of that.”

Health inspections are required at each of the 24 University dining facilities every year, and most of the infractions were corrected on the spot. For example, at Runk Dining Hall, there were two inspections last year. One was on April 10, and one violation was found —  the lettuce and hummus were being kept at improper temperatures. The operator removed the products since they were rendered inedible, and called maintenance to repair the unit during the inspection. 

Another inspection of Runk on Aug. 22 had similar issues of holding food at improper temperatures, as well as obstruction of a handwashing sink and possible contamination of food — tongs for bread were not provided at the self-serve sandwich station. When food isn’t held at the proper temperature, there is an increased chance of bacteria growing to risky levels, and food contamination can easily lead to the spread of pathogens.

Observatory Hill Dining Hall had six inspections in 2017, with issues including obstruction of a handwashing sink and improper holding temperature for food in the salad bar and in the hot holding box. On Nov. 13, macaroni noodles and cooked pork were held at improper temperatures, and the meat slicer and the soup kettle had food debris left on the inside. 

At the Oct. 18 inspection when Crossroads had 10 violations, four of the violations were priority, two were priority foundation and four were core. The priority violations were that food on display was not being protected from contamination, rice was not reheated within two hours to eliminate bacteria, ingredients in the burrito prep unit were held at improper temperatures and pizza and chicken tenders were not labeled with their serve-by time. 

Kate Fitzgerald, a fourth-year Engineering student, spoke about her experience with University dining facilities. 

“U.Va. dining gives students a lot of freedom to choose their meals — it's just that sometimes your choices are kung pao tacos and beans over spaghetti,” Fitzgerald said. 

Despite the creative culinary concepts and consistent health inspections, Fitzgerald noted that she and her friends have had a few negative experiences with University dining.

“My friends and I have been served raw chicken several times — one of them even coined herself a ‘Newcomb vegetarian’ because she won't eat meat in the dining halls anymore,” Fitzgerald said. “I was also here for the ‘Obola’ epidemic my first year, which was when the norovirus spread through O-Hill. One of my friends had to be wheeled out of her room on a stretcher.”

Fitzgerald was referring to a November 2014 incident, when 15 students were sent to the emergency department for gastrointestinal illness and some students speculated this was linked to dining hall food.

According to Aebersold, University dining complies with all the advisories set by the Food and Drug Administration and follows set rules to prevent foodborne illnesses and promote safe consumption. 

“Every day is about providing the best possible experience to all of our students, faculty and staff,” Aebersold said. “Our team members take pride in what they do every day and want to make sure that their guests are taken care of because they know we are here for them.”

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