The prestigious Capitol cafeteria in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania has been closed down following reports of rodent infestation. It was termed an imminent health risk as the authorities found "excessive" rat droppings on food preparation equipment and in cabinets and utensil bins.
The closure comes as a shock to many as the canteen is a popular coffee and lunch spot for statehouse visitors and employees.
State law requires annual checks for health and sanitation. Auditor General Jack Wagner said Thursday he received assurances in 2005 that the state Agriculture Department would inspect it.
He says his auditors later received false assurances that it was being inspected regularly.
Mr. Wagner said that the failed inspection and subsequent closing of the Capitol cafeteria further highlight the need for food safety legislation he has championed for the past four years.
He said he learned last week that, in fact, state agencies continued wrangling over jurisdictional issues that his audit termed "inexcusable."
"Inspections of all public eateries are conducted to ensure health and safety," Wagner said. In the case of the Capitol cafeteria, Wagner noted at least 200,000 people visit the Capitol every year, including busloads of elementary school children and tour groups of senior citizens. "State agencies should not argue for four years over a health and safety issue while school children, senior citizens, other visitors and public servants can purchase meals prepared in kitchens that are unsafe."
As a direct result of Wagner's initial audit, the Department of Agriculture inspected the Capitol cafeteria in November 2005, which was the last actual inspection of the Capitol cafeteria until last week. In May 2005, Wagner's department received a letter from the Department of General Services saying that DGS, the Department of Health, the Department of Agriculture, and the City of Harrisburg would "soon memorialize in writing" who would inspect the Capitol eateries.
Wagner's auditors followed up on the original audit in November 2007, at which time they received assurances that the Department of Agriculture inspects the Capitol Complex Building.
But apparently the jurisdictional dispute was never actually resolved.
Wagner said the food safety legislation that is languishing in the General Assembly could address this issue and others to improve the restaurant inspection process.
"Although Pennsylvania's restaurant industry is generally clean and safe, the passage of an important piece of food safety legislation, like House Bill 174, would greatly improve the restaurant inspection process to further assure the residents of Pennsylvania of the safety of every restaurant in the commonwealth," Wagner said.