Expired food worth $7,000 removed from Boston schools, Connolly is told

City Councillor At-Large John Connolly clashed with Boston Public School officials on Tuesday at a council hearing over expired frozen food that he found during unannounced visits to four schools last month.

Connolly, who as chair of the City Council’s education committee has progressively stepped up criticism of BPS, accused school department officials of “severe mismanagement” of food storing and record-keeping while citing a disconnect between the different people involved in the process.

“As we’ve begun to review these documents, we are seeing a food and nutrition services department with little or no inventory management controls and a lack of coordination between the people who set the menus and the people who order the food,” he said.

The four main issues, he said, were lack of inventory control, the cost of storage fees, the ordering of extra food when the same food sat in storage, and poor menu planning.

School Superintendent Carol Johnson said that Boston families should be confident that the food is safe to eat and not outdated. “Let’s be clear – the food we serve to our students is safe, all of it is safe,” Johnson told Connolly, adding that the main issue lies in “food storage, not food safety.”

Johnson said as of Monday, 280 boxes of expired food have been removed from BPS freezers, and another 40 from around the city, worth a total of $7,000.

She said that new software will be installed to make it easier to identify and prevent duplicate orders of food, and that the department is halfway through a two-year long process of overhauling their menu system.

“Obviously a tremendous error has been made in the tracking of this food,” said Councillor Maureen Feeney, but she backed Johnson, saying that no child appears to have been harmed and there is a new plan in place.

Connolly focused his questions on the school department’s interim director of food and nutrition, Shamil Mohammad, who was working through a cold on his first day on the job. The former director, Helen Mont-Ferguson, was reassigned this week to the BPS’s wellness department.

“Mr. Mohammed, is it fair to say that in fact food stored in the year 2009 made its way to Boston Public School cafeterias in 2011?” Connolly asked multiple times, referring to egg patties, in one of several sharp exchanges between the two.

“We agree with you that this should not occur,” Mohammed replied. “…We’ve been working on this issue to ensure that we menu our items as soon as we order them.” He later added there has been no evidence of E. Coli or salmonella in any of the expired food.

Citing the most recent inventory report from last month (Feb. 28), Connolly gave examples of the expired food, one being that 237 cases of frozen pork patties weighing 5,364 lbs. had been sitting in storage since at least April 2010, two months past the USDA guidelines that recommend meat be served within nine months.

Connolly also noted that 72 cases of frozen ground beef weighing 2,596 lbs. had been in storage beginning in September 2009 while the system ordered an additional 14 cases in October 2009, another 73 cases the next April, and 24 cases in July 2010, all adding up to 169 cases of frozen ground beef sitting in storage from 11 to 18 months.

During a short break in the questioning, Connolly apologized to the row of cafeteria workers at the hearing who might have been negatively affected by his discovery, and offered his appreciation for their services, saying the issue was one of management.