McConnell seeks to reinforce high ratings in response to food safety issues

Partially rotten tomatoes were spotted at McConnell Dining Hall Jan. 31. (James Karsten • The Student Life)

While Los Angeles County safety inspections continue to grant top marks to 5C dining halls, reports of potentially unsafe food items at Pitzer College’s McConnell Dining Hall have led the school to double down on its existing procedures to ensure they’re serving high-quality products.

TSL received two reports of mold on food on McConnell’s serving line in recent weeks, including a moldy hamburger bun on Jan. 21 that was reported to staff. To general manager Cynthia Bennington, this incident reinforces the importance of McConnell’s vigilance for food safety.

“We received one report of a bun with mold on it. We discarded all remaining buns that day, and reiterated with our team the importance of not only going by the recorded ‘use by’ dates, based on purchase, but thoroughly visually inspecting all ingredients before use,” Bennington wrote in an email to TSL. “Our bun vendor bakes fresh and does not use preservatives, so the shelf life is sometimes shorter than anticipated, which we clearly needed to pay more attention to.”

TSL has also obtained a video, recorded Jan. 31, that appears to show mold on tomato slices being served at McConnell’s grill. The incident was not reported to dining hall staff. Bennington’s email also mentioned two reports of winged insects in salad greens.

McConnell is run by Bon Appetit, which also operates Claremont McKenna College’s Collins Hall. The dining halls at Pomona College are run by the college itself. Scripps College and Harvey Mudd College dining halls are run by controversial food services corporation Sodexo.

Bon Appetit employees follow the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points system, an FDA-issued quality control process, and complete a training program in food safety, according to Bennington.

Bon Appetit chefs are certified by ServSafe, a “nationally recognized food safety certification program” and have the required California Food Handlers card. On top of regular inspections by the LA County Department of Public Health, Bon Appetit also employs a third party company, EcoSure, to conduct semi-annual safety audits.

Customers can make reports in person to staff or through McConnell’s website.

“If there were to be a report [of unsafe food], we’d immediately investigate, discard or compost the suspect item, and if necessary, report the problem to our supplier so they can check their own practices and stock,” Bennington wrote, outlining Bon Appetit’s procedure for dealing with unsafe food items. In the case of the salad greens, Bennington said the products were composted, and the supplier was notified.

“We hold safety meetings weekly, and have a dedicated safety committee that meets bi-monthly to discuss ways to further improve sanitation through education around frequent hand-washing, sanitizing workstations, avoiding cross-contamination and ensuring proper food temperatures,” Bennington added.

McConnell’s efforts seem to have paid off. LA County inspections have given the hall an A rating (90-100 points) in each inspection since 2016, the last year for which data is available. The most recent inspection on Feb. 6 of this year scored 94 points and found three violations. The most violations McConnell has ever received, according to county data, was five in September 2017.

Students who eat at McConnell seem generally content with the food safety and quality. Shaafi Farooqi PZ ’19 said she eats in McConnell almost every day and is generally satisfied with the food quality and overall environment in the dining hall.

“Obviously [the reports of mold on food are] concerning, but one moldy bun doesn’t make me question everything about the dining hall,” Farooqi said. “I feel like that could happen anywhere, probably.”

McConnell staff members Gary Lewis and Sergio Solares said, in separate interviews, that they have never observed or received reports of unsafe food in McConnell in their time working there.

Emily Gao PZ ’20 said the reports of moldy food make her “wonder how the other dining halls are.”

All the other 5C dining halls have received an A-rating in every listed county inspection.

Food at Frank, Frary and Oldenborg dining halls is typically received two to three days before being served, according to an email from Jose Martinez, Pomona’s general manager for dining services. In addition to outside inspections, Pomona does internal safety inspections two to four times a day, as well as at opening and closing times.

“Pomona also invested in blast chillers, [devices that] cool down food and maintain it away from the danger zone [the temperature range that allows spoiling], which helps maintain a strong HACCP plan,” Martinez said.

Jennifer Carbajal, Bon Appetit general manager for Collins, wrote in an email that Collins also makes use of EcoSure in addition to county inspections, and like McConnell, follows Bon Appetit’s steps for responding to a report of unsafe food. Collins’ sole report of a food safety issue this academic year, according to Carbajal, was a small insect in a poke plate in December.

“We have strong food safety procedures and training at Bon Appetit Management Company, so I would say we don’t have a lot of reports of food safety issues [at Collins],” Carbajal said.

Management at Scripps and HMC dining halls did not respond to requests for comment before press time.

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