HARRISBURG - Thousands of state employees, elected officials from Gov. Rendell on down, and guests eat at the glass-enclosed Capitol cafeteria each week.

They go for the convenience, the schmoozing, and the ever-popular macaroni and cheese.

But little did they know that other diners were living under the green-domed Capitol roof, taking advantage of the cafeteria pantry after hours: mice, untold numbers of them.

The discovery the week before Christmas of a rodent infestation and 16 other health-code violations in the cafeteria prompted a flurry of responses: its immediate closing, government agency finger-pointing, and calls for tougher food-safety laws. Some state employees and lawmakers also wondered whether they could bring themselves to eat there again.

Auditor General Jack Wagner said the discovery had made the historic Capitol a symbol of food-safety shortcomings in the commonwealth.

"What happened was unacceptable," he said in an interview Tuesday. "There was serious health exposure risks to many people, including state employees and a lot of children."

A state audit of Department of Agriculture restaurant inspections in 2005 cited a lingering jurisdictional dispute between the department and the City of Harrisburg over who was to inspect the Capitol cafeteria. Wagner said he had been assured that it would be quickly resolved.

It never was.

Last week, Wagner announced that the cafeteria hadn't been inspected since 2005, despite a state law requiring annual inspections of all licensed food-service establishments.

When inspectors finally did arrive Dec. 17, they reported, among other things, rodent droppings "too numerous to count," filthy equipment, and inadequate temperature controls for the dishwasher and refrigerator.

The cafeteria, which serves breakfast and lunch, is operated by Aramark of Philadelphia, one of the nation's largest food-service companies. It supplies meals to schools, prisons, stadiums (including the three Philadelphia pro venues), and the Olympics.

Spokeswoman Sarah Jarvis offered little explanation yesterday for how things had gotten so bad at the Capitol, saying only that the situation was not "reflective of the high standards that Aramark holds."

James Creedon, secretary of the Department of General Services, which oversees government contracts, said this week that the agency was "not happy" with the inspection news.

"How can I not be upset?" he said of Aramark's performance. "I'm surprised they weren't saying something about the [lack of] inspections."

Aramark won the main Capitol cafeteria contract in 2004, the year after Rendell took office.

A longtime supporter of Rendell, the company's political action committee has contributed $20,000 to him since he first ran for governor in 2001, half of it in 2002, the year he was elected, according to campaign records. Aramark chief executive officer Joseph Neubauer also has contributed $15,000 to Rendell since 2006.

The company arrived in Harrisburg with a splash, redesigning the cafeteria, adding some menu items, and, most popular of all, bringing Starbucks coffee to town.

This week, workers from the Department of General Services were doing a different kind of remodeling, literally turning sections of the cafeteria atrium dining area upside down, ripping out 15-foot-tall potted trees, and tearing up the floor to eradicate the mice.

Creedon said his agency would monitor Aramark closely during the next six months. If things don't improve, he said, the company could lose its contract, which is renewed annually. Aramark shares a portion of its receipts with the state.

"We're taking this very seriously," he said. "Aramark has to prove themselves. The Department of Agriculture has to prove themselves, and the Department of General Services has to prove themselves."

Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, who was confirmed to the post this month, said his agency signed an agreement last week with the City of Harrisburg to take responsibility for inspecting the cafeteria.

"We will license and inspect the Capitol complex," he said, adding, "It took this crisis to put it in light."

In addition to the massive cleanup of the food-preparation area and equipment repairs, Aramark said it had fired the cafeteria manager, instituted an immediate food-safety training program, and hired a new pest-control company.

"We are on track to open on Monday," Jarvis said.

Wagner said he would continue to push for food-safety legislation that has languished in the General Assembly.

He said the bill would tie license renewals to clean inspections and would establish that failure to correct certain violations would result in license revocation.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Mike Carroll (D., Luzerne), said he hoped the cafeteria incident helped get the bill passed.

For now, he's not certain whether he'll be back in line at the Capitol cafeteria anytime soon.

"I'd have to read about what's been done and make a calculation," Carroll said. "Then I'd say whether I'd eat there."

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.