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A map of dining establishments around Penn that have been subject to recent health inspections.

While recent food safety violations at Penn Dining have alarmed some students, the many factors that affect the results of health inspections might not be immediately clear.

Houston Market passed its health inspection last Wednesday and is now in compliance, according to Paul Bulau, regional district manager for Penn’s food service provider Bon Appetit.

All four of Penn’s dining halls — 1920 Commons, Hill, King’s Court and Hillel’s kosher facility Falk — are still waiting for another inspection by a city official, and are currently listed as out of compliance with city health code.

The issue has raised some concern among students. Though Casey Rosengren, a Wharton freshman who eats 10 to 20 meals per week in the dining halls, said there seems to be discontent among students concerning the violations. “It wasn’t much of a stretch for me, especially since I’ve seen cockroaches on the bottom floor of Commons before.”

According to Benjamin Chapman, a food-safety specialist and North Carolina State University professor, college dining systems are more at risk because they work with a wide variety of menu items. This requires that kitchens hold raw and reheated foods, which must be kept at very specific temperatures.

Food-borne illnesses are a serious concern nationwide, affecting one in four Americans every year, according to Chapman.

Rosengren noted that freshmen are particularly frustrated with the violations because they are required to have a meal plan, and often have no other eating options. “It’s $13 a meal that I’ve already paid for, but they don’t even meet health code standards,” he said.

Nursing freshman Andres Sepulveda agreed. “We might as well be offered the minimum that a food establishment needs to pass to exist,” he said.

“Having the dining halls not pass is a scary thought,” said College freshman Michael Plate, who has the Liberty Meal Plan. After hearing about the violations, Plate stopped eating in the dining halls for several days, but realized he needed to use the meals he paid for.

“It seems so easy to prevent,” he said. “I keep my own dorm nice and clean. The kitchen has a lot more staff, so they should be able to take care of it.”

However, students’ knowledge of food safety may be limited.

While Rosengren thought mouse droppings “are definitely a more egregious error than improper hand-washing,” Chapman emphasized the opposite.

“People think that mouse droppings are gross, but in reality mouse droppings aren’t likely to jump from the floor to your plate,” he said. “Instead, it’s been proven by the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] and the WHO [World Health Organization] that hand washing and cross-contamination are most likely to cause food-borne illnesses.”

Several Penn Dining locations were cited for having improper hand washing facilities: 1920 Commons had inoperable sinks, while Houston Market lacked hot water in restrooms.

“The ideal attitude for a food provider is for operators to instill a shared set of values about what makes a safe facility,” Chapman said. “It really comes down to the operator knowing what the risks are, and how to help employees reduce those risks.”

Bon Appetit conducts weekly self-inspections of the dining facilities in each location, according to Bulau. “Sometimes we find ourselves noncompliant during our own inspections — it’s a corrective process,” he said, emphasizing that some violations are remedied immediately.

Joel Blice, Bon Appetit’s executive chef at Penn, compared inspections to students taking tests. “The goal is to get 100 percent, but you don’t always get it,” he said.

Blice pointed to several factors that make compliance difficult, such as constantly changing health codes and the fact that an inspection only offers a “snapshot of time.”

Chapman — who has worked in food safety for 10 years — said inspections don’t predict whether a restaurant will have a food-borne illness outbreak. “Places that are theoretically at high risk don’t cause outbreaks any more than those that do have good inspections,” he said, since food inspections are an assessment of risk and not of actual illnesses caused by an establishment.

Business Services spokeswoman Barbara Lea-Kruger said the violations affecting Penn Dining are very different from those that caused the February closure of Fresh Grocer. “They were experiencing the same critical issues over and over again, while no two of our locations have the same noncompliance items,” she said, adding, “We are nowhere near having to face legal action.”

After initially failing inspections and agreeing in court to close, Fresh Grocer was found to be compliant in a March 26 inspection. The city will drop its case against the store if it clears another inspection before a scheduled hearing on June 22, Deputy City Solicitor Ann Pasquariello told The Daily Pennsylvanian last month.

Penn Dining is taking the matter “very seriously,” Lea-Kruger said. “We’re offering the opportunity for any student to tour the dining hall kitchens with the managers.”

The inspections of Penn Dining and the Fresh Grocer have occured in the midst of Philadelphia’s transition to a “risk-based” approach for food safety inspections, which focuses on aspects of food preparation and serving most likely to have a public health impact, according to Chapman.

Philadelphia County trails behind the state, which initiated its risk-based program in 2003. Some other counties, like Montgomery County, have followed risk-based guidelines for the last 20 years.

Food inspection reports are made public 30 days after an inspection, and can be viewed at the Philadelphia Department of Health’s website.

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