Investigators Descend On VA Hospital Accused Of Serving Raw Food

Getty/Scott Olson

Michael Volpe Contributor
Font Size:

Both the Joint Commission (JC), an accreditation organization, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have visited the Hines VA Medical Center since an exposé by The Daily Caller of unsanitary kitchen conditions.

The JC visited the Hines VA Medical on May 22, according to an internal document, to inspect the hospital’s kitchen.

“The Joint Commission’s Office of Quality and Patient Safety (OQPS) is responsible for assessing all reports of concerns relating to patient safety and quality to determine if they relate to our standards and whether any action needs to be taken to address those concerns,” said Elizabeth Zhani, media relations manager for the JC, in a statement to TheDC.

“The Joint Commission conducted an unannounced onsite visit at Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital, 5000 South 5th Avenue, Hines, Illinois, on May 22, 2017, in response to patient safety and quality concerns about the organization which the OQPS became aware of. The source of this information is confidential.”

As TheDC broke exclusively, photos taken inside the kitchen at the Hines VA show unsanitary conditions including mice, a hole in the wall, and routinely serving expired food.

Facebook screenshots further showed the hospital’s head of food and nutrition, Valerie Adegunleye, was selling handbags for her side business while working at the hospital.

The JC is an, “independent, not-for-profit organization,” according to its website which “accredits and certifies nearly 21,000 health care organizations and programs in the United States. Joint Commission accreditation and certification is recognized nationwide as a symbol of quality that reflects an organization’s commitment to meeting certain performance standards.”

While not a government regulator, their accreditation service for hospitals is akin to the seal of approval for other industries.

But Hines VA employee and whistleblower Germaine Clarno said she was suspicious of the timing of the visit.

“We’ve been complaining about the kitchen for months and now that the media is involved (JC shows),” she said.

Clarno said that she filed a complaint with JC about the kitchen in early February but that the complaint sat on someone’s desk until the story from TheDC came out.

Rick Fox, public affairs officer for the Hines VA, denied the visit by JC was prompted by the article.

The JC’s report singled out Adegunleye for poor performance, “During review of food temperature logs with the director of Nutrition and Food Services, it was noted that the hospital did not have a system for verifying and documenting the temperature of refrigerated perishable foods received from its suppliers contrary to the requirements of the (USDA/FDA) Food Code 2013 Section 3-202.11.”

The report noted that numerous protocols were not being followed.

“During review of the logs kept by the facilities department for the kitchen freezer and refrigerator temperatures using the Temp Trak system, it was noted that for multiple dates for the last month, the temperatures recorded were out of range for prolonged periods, but no corrective actions were documented,” the report stated. “During review of the temperature logs kept of foods prepared by the kitchen cooks for the last month, it was noted that not all raw or plant food items cooked for each meal were being monitored for appropriate cooking temperatures achieved as required by the 2013 (USDA/FDA) Food Code Section 3-401.11.”

“We take all allegations regarding employee misconduct seriously. While we will not comment on any proposed disciplinary action or performance reviews, we hold our employees accountable for their actions.” Fox said, “We continue to work on process improvements as needed.”

The FDA has also visited Hines recently.

The FDA recently conducted an inspection at this facility and received commitment for corrections by the VA,” said Peter Cassell, press officer for the FDA.

Clarno said she was unaware of this visit and in fact when she complained to the FDA, the regulator sent her an email back on May 30, 2017, claiming they had no jurisdiction.

“FDA does not have jurisdiction in this matter. We are a federal agency that regulates manufacturers of food sold in interstate commerce in the United States,” the email stated. “Your hospital’s regulation or certification would more than likely come from the local government’s (city or county) health department. Please check with that agency.”

Initially, Cassell also directed TheDC to speak to the local health department: “that would then be the Illinois Health Department or more likely the county. I would contact them as well.”

But because this is a federal hospital, the state health department has no jurisdiction, according to Melaney Arnold, the communications manager for the Illinois Department of Health.

Cassell later released a new statement now stating that the FDA does have jurisdiction.

The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act gives the FDA inspectional authority to inspect any establishment in which food is manufactured, processed, packed, or held, for introduction into interstate commerce. The FDA does not routinely inspect the retail food and foodservice industry in the United States,” the new statement read.

Clarno said she is not convinced.

She believes the loss of accreditation — the maximum punishment from the JC — isn’t nearly as significant for a public hospital than for a private hospital where patients choose to go.

In her view, she still believes there is no agency which can make a surprise inspection and hold the VA accountable when one of their hospital’s kitchen is unsanitary; the VA is left to police itself, she said.

Michael Volpe