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Food Safety at Sports Venues

Posted in Food Policy,Food Safety,Our Blog on February 7, 2019

Remember that scene from the classic slapstick film The Naked Gun where an attendee at a baseball game between the California Angels and Seattle Mariners finds a finger in their hot dog? It might be closer to real life than you’d like to believe. Food Safety at Sports Venues is an issue it appears…

That’s the takeaway from a long report recently published by ESPN that highlighted unsanitary conditions at our nation’s big sports venues. Nobody’s been finding fingers in hot dogs (yet), but there’s good reason to be wary of the food and drink served there. Inspectors registered thousands of high-level food safety violations at America’s 111 biggest stadiums.

Here’s what ESPN had to say: “The violations run the gamut: chicken, shrimp and sushi festering at dangerous temperatures that can breed bacteria; employees wiping their faces with their hands and then handling food for customers; cooks sweating over food; beef blood dripping on a shelf; moldy or expired food; dirty utensils or contaminated equipment; and the presence of live cockroaches and mice. Less serious but still icky: dirty floors, fruit flies, pesky pigeons and, in one venue, beer leaking from a ceiling.”

That’s not even the worst of it. At Coors Field in Denver, a health department inspectors came across a mouse in a box of Cracker Jacks, which probably wasn’t the prize that he was inspecting. He also found live cockroaches, dead mice, and plenty of droppings.

Maybe this isn’t surprising to you. After all, stadiums are not famous for their cleanliness. Often, the experience of watching sports in a crowd is not a particularly hygienic one. Beer is spilt readily and often. Popcorn and nachos are scattered this way and that, which in turn attracts pests like seagulls and cockroaches. And the stadium food itself can often be somewhat sketchy.

Furthermore, according to one expert who spoke to ESPN, the high volume of people who are served food during the course of a sports match increases the risk of food-related illness. On any given night, a restaurant will serve perhaps a hundred people; bigger venues might serve a few hundred. A typical sports match will see thousands of people served food, with employees trying to deliver at a pace that’s chaotic and demanding. This quick-paced, high-stress environment creates more opportunities for mistakes. Even a well-trained set of food service staff who are doing everything that they’re supposed to are liable to slip up from time to time.

One of the worst stadiums identified by ESPN was Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Rays. They’ve long been butting heads with Centrelink, who previously provided for their concessions. From ESPN: “In December 2017, the Rays sued Centerplate for breach of contract, alleging that the contractor “surreptitiously cut corners, underreported gross receipts, concealed performance issues, underpaid the Rays, and underperformed” under their agreement to the “detriment of the Rays and their fans.” The lawsuit referenced negative media coverage, including the Sports Illustrated and Outside the Lines stories, noting that within a week of the latter, “a Centerplate supervisor took two cups out of a spoilage container, washed them out and added the dirty cups to a new stack.”

Another problem vendor identified in the report is Legends Buffet. They serve food at Yankee Stadium, which itself is amongst the most egregious for food safety offenders identified by ESPN. Almost four out of five food outlets at Yankee Stadium registered at least one high-level violation with the local health department in 2016 and 2017. That’s a higher percentage than Coors Stadium, where the mouse was found in the Crackerjack Box, and it’s amongst the highest out of all the stadiums that ESPN looked at.

Not everything is so gruesome or icky as rodents hiding out in boxes of sweets, of course. The real business of food safety is usually much more mundane. The real driver of foodborne illness, both in the stadium and outside of it, isn’t visible and frightening in the way that mice or cockroaches are. Instead, it’s something much more mundane: handwashing. Or, to be more specific, a lack of attention towards handwashing. People who don’t wash their hands, or people who don’t wash their hands properly, are the primary sources of foodborne disease. ESPN mentions this and highlights a few instances of employees whose poor hand-related hygiene got people sick. They’re right on the money: handwashing is the thing that you need to worry about as far as foodborne disease goes.

If you’ve got season tickets to see your favorite team on a regular basis, and the content of this article is troubling to you, the best thing that you can do is head over to ESPN and read the full report for yourself. It’s much longer, chock-full of original research, and touches on a number of things we don’t have the space to discuss here. It should also be able to tell you how your local stadium fits into the grand scheme of things, provided that it’s hosting a team which plays sports in a national league like the NBA, NFL, or MLB.

If you’re feeling curious about how your local stadium does, of course, you’d do well to pay attention not just to how they fit into the rankings but how your local health department handles things. They’re the ones who are charged with keeping businesses that serve food in line, and not all health departments are created equal. Some check much more frequently than others; almost all have different requirements, expectations, and procedures when inspecting. How they do their due diligence can make a big difference for your health.

By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)