BOSTON (Reuters) - Out-of-date food has been found lingering in public school cafeterias across Massachusetts, sent from warehouses up to six weeks past "use by" dates, the state department of education said on Friday.

Roughly a dozen schools reported expired food shipments or sought guidance on an inconsistent system for dating food, said JC Considine, spokesman for theMassachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Expired school cafeteria food first surfaced in Boston last month. The problem has since been detected statewide.

Boston city councilor John Connolly noted that most Boston students have an income level low enough to qualify for free or discounted breakfasts and lunches at school, and said he worried that past-date cafeteria food puts them at risk of receiving meals with no real nutritional value.

In the wake of the past-prime food discoveries, school officials asked the U.S. Agriculture Department to institute more uniform coding to date food.

Currently, a mishmash of coding practices is used to date food. Some packages are labeled with an expiration date, others with a packaged-on stamp, some with best-if-used-by timing and some with no date.

USDA guidelines complicate the matter further, saying food products may be fine to eat well after the date listed.

School food supplied by the USDA is stored in and shipped from four warehouse facilities around the state. The expired food appears to be confined to one warehouse serving schools in northeastern Massachusetts, Considine said.

Food storage at all four facilities will be reviewed, he said.

In Boston, officials identified 280 cases of food with questionable dates in 40 of its 46 full service kitchens that ultimately serve 135 schools.

Out-of-date products ranged from cheese to chickpeas to beef patties, said Boston schools spokesman Matthew Wilder. Some product dates were as old as 2009, others were just a few months past.

Officials also recently identified 3,000 cases of food at the storage facility with questionable dates, he said.

"We uncovered some real fiscal waste because of inventory mismanagement that was resulting in expired food making its way into schools," Connolly said.

These discoveries have prompted an upgrade to the inventory management system and revamped long-term menu planning, said Wilder.

Boston school officials have assured parents and students the food being served is safe, but some schools have reported a dip in lunch and breakfast participation since the findings surfaced.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Greg McCune)

Source: Reuters US Online Report Health News

Creative Commons image via flickr user Jed Baxter.