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Expired food not confined to Hub

School leaders air their concerns, seek guidance from state

By Akilah Johnson and Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / April 1, 2011

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State education officials acknowledged yesterday that the out-of-date food problem extends beyond Boston, with old food discovered in school cafeterias throughout Massachusetts.

More than 160 school leaders participated in a conference call with the state to voice concerns about problems in their districts. Superintendents and food service managers, many of them from the Greater Boston area, told of finding old food in freezers that had, at times, arrived from one of the state’s four warehouses already out of date. In one instance, pouches of tuna fish were delivered from one warehouse nearly two years after their expiration date.

The Education Department’s nutrition and health safety officials stressed that out-of-date food is generally safe to eat, but they suggested districts throw out or refuse shipments of food if they have concerns.

“It’s almost rocket science to make sure that your storage rooms have healthy food in them,’’ Revere’s superintendent, Paul Dakin, said after yesterday’s call. “My argument is if it says it can be used for three more months, then let’s label it as such. Let’s clear it up and stop messing around with semantics here. Don’t give us an expires on January 2011, but it’s good until July 2011. That’s ridiculous.’’

Dakin said his district refused to accept a shipment of food for four or five schools last week when it arrived from the warehouse after the expiration dates. Even when the food appears safe for consumption, Dakin said Revere’s food services staff should not be put in a situation where their job is on the line by serving outdated food. He was referring to the reassignment of Boston Public Schools’ longtime director of food and nutrition services.

The food scare first erupted last month in Boston, when City Councilor John R. Connolly discovered out-of-date food in four school cafeterias. That prompted a wider review by school officials who discovered 280 cases of old food in cafeterias and an additional 3,000 cases of food worth $107,000 in a warehouse. The food was set aside and will be thrown out, with the exception of a small portion that was found to be sufficiently fresh.

“This is a systemic problem,’’ Dakin said. “It’s certainly not a [Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] problem, and it’s certainly not the poor cafeteria manager who ends up accepting the goods that are delivered like this but who could get in trouble with parents and the media and have to explain their way out of it.’’

The state said it plans to conduct a full review of each of the four food storage warehouses, scrutinizing their paperwork and physically walking through the facilities to ensure that products are being sent out to schools before they expire.

JC Considine, a School Department spokesman, said the problem “seems to be isolated to that group served out of the warehouse that services the Northeast area of the state,’’ including Boston.

Officials at that warehouse, Wilmington Cold Storage, said their company should not be blamed.

“We handle their inventory, but we are not looking at best buy dates or sell by dates,’’ president Peter Lewis said yesterday by phone. “We bring the product in, we store it, and we wait for the state and the various schools to give us instructions when to ship it. . . . They tell us what to ship.’’

The USDA’s school lunch program is a complex system that straddles bureaucracies on the federal, state, and local level. Much of the food comes from the federal government, but the program is administered by the state. In Massachusetts, about 15 percent of the food that makes its way on to lunch trays comes from the USDA, officials said.

The state Department of Education contracts with four regional warehouses, including Wilmington Cold Storage, that serve as holding and distribution points for local school districts. Those warehouses are privately owned and do not to determine how or when the food should be used.

Most districts make monthly food orders through the state. The warehouses fill the orders, then trucking companies pick them up and distribute them.

Part of the problem, which Massachusetts officials say is also an issue in other states, appears to be an inconsistency in how food is labeled. Some manufacturers print expiration dates on their products, while others label their food with a best used by stamp; and still others offer a best if sold by date.

Complicating matters further, federal guidelines that say food actually maintains its nutritional value and flavor for several months beyond what the manufacturer has stamped on the package, meaning dates don’t necessarily need to be heeded.

“The complexity of the process and allowing manufacturers to use their own codes has contributed to some of the issues that are now arising,’’ Considine said in an e-mail. “We are discussing with manufacturers what the codes on products mean and what the shelf life of that product is. We are also asking the USDA to go to a more uniform process of coding.’’

Shamil Mohammed, Boston’s interim director of food and nutrition services, said the federal government needs to develop a universal system to determine the age of all of the food.

“Give us one date on the outside of the box,’’ Mohammed said. “Then there will be no questions.’’

Yesterday, the USDA did not return calls seeking comment.

Since the out-of-date food made headlines last month, Lewis of Wilmington Cold Storage said his company has been working diligently with the officials from the state and Boston to fix the problem.

Warehouse staff — who are private employees not government workers — have begun flagging items that are approaching best-by dates, according to Lewis, who declined to cast blame on the state or local school districts.

A contingent from Boston Public Schools spent five hours in the warehouse yesterday to address the problem, he said.

“I think they are making more out of this than it really is,’’ Lewis said, “My own grandchildren are in school systems that eat this food.’’

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com; Andrew Ryan at acryan@globe.com.