WASHINGTON -- Millions of children eat in school cafeterias that don't get the twice-yearly health inspections required by Congress to help prevent food poisoning.
Schools are supposed to get two visits from health inspectors every year. But 1 in 10 schools did not get inspected at all last year, according to Agriculture Department data obtained by the Associated Press. Thirty percent were visited only once.
Nationwide, 61 percent of all schools were inspected twice or more during the 2005-2006 school year. In Massachusetts, 57 percent of the schools were visited twice during the same period.
"Do you want to go to a restaurant that hasn't been inspected?" asked Ken Kelly, attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group that has studied cafeteria safety.
Inspections are meant to ensure that cafeteria workers wash their hands properly and that they keep lunchtime staples such as pizza hot and milk cold to prevent germs from growing.
Common violations involve wrong temperatures -- failing to keep hot food hot enough or cold food cold enough -- or things such as having an open dumpster outside the cafeteria.
Kelly's group issued a report in January that found:
Rhode Island schools were commonly cited for cross-contamination of utensils, improper holding temperatures, and the presence of vermin.
Washington, D.C., schools had hot- and cold-holding equipment that needed repair.
Schools in Hartford have been cited for having floors that needed repair and inadequate hand-washing stations and sanitation.
Congress passed a law requiring two inspections a year, starting with the 2005-2006 school. year. The old requirement was one inspection per year.
"We have some good news here in terms of what states have already done, but now it's time to go and look at where we have challenges," said Jean Daniel, Agriculture Department spokeswoman.
The inspection rules apply to all schools that participate in the federal school lunch program, which provides free and reduced-price meals to low-income children.
Nearly every public school participates in the program, which is run by the Agriculture Department. Half of the nation's 60 million students eat lunches prepared in school, according to the department.
According to the department, of the 94,132 schools reporting in the 2005-2006 school year:
10 percent were not inspected at all.
29 percent were inspected once.
61 percent were inspected at least twice.
No data were reported by 7,309 schools.
The missed visits mirror a drop-off in food safety inspections by the Food and Drug Administration. FDA inspections fell by nearly half between 2003 and 2006.
It is up to state and local health authorities to schedule inspections, and many health departments are severely understaffed, particularly those in small towns and rural areas.
In some places, "we could get down on our hands and knees and beg, but they are only staffed to do certain things, and you cannot get them to come twice a year," said Janey Thornton, president of the School Nutrition Association and a nutrition director in Hardin County, Ky., public schools.
When Congress doubled the inspection requirement, lawmakers did not provide any money for more inspections.
"This was a federal mandate which came down with no resources to support increased levels of inspection," said Paul E. Jarris, executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.