Mold in the ice machines. A cockroach crawling over the soda dispensers. Fruit flies swirled into the margaritas (at least you won’t be buying your kids those). ESPN reporter Paula Lavigne culled through hundreds of inspection reports for every stadium across the country and found that as unappealing as most classic stadium food is to begin with (hot dogs rolling under heat lamps, cardboard pretzels) the truth is even worse than we imagined, with temperature violations, unwashed hands and mousedroppings at many locations.
With kids even more vulnerable to food-borne illnesses than adults, parents need to be particularly vigilant when it comes to food safety. Many of us view the concession stand with an eye towards coming up with the healthiest (or at least, most innocuous) options, but those “healthy” foods can make you just as sick, or sicker, than the alternatives. Stadium employees are under pressure to serve lots of food fast, and they’re probably more interested in their time card and their paycheck than they are in food safety. At 30 of the stadium homes to MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL teams, more than half of the on-site food vendors were cited for “critical” or “major” health violations in 2009.
At one ballpark, every single food vendor was cited for a violation last year.
With numbers like that, how can you take a kid to the game without trying to smuggle in a picnic in your purse?
At Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field, every single food and drink vendor was cited for a violation of food safety last year, ranging from “slime” in the ice machines to not having thermometers present to monitor the food. And before you shrug off those concerns, consider that the most dangerous food safety violations aren’t the grossest ones. Mouse poop on the cutting board sounds disgusting, but it’s less likely to make you sick than an undercooked chicken sandwich, with E. coli, salmonella and staphylococcus aureus bacteria growing freely as the meat cools off. Similarly, hand washing sounds minor compared to “slime” in the ice machine—but it’s the unwashed hand grabbing the ice scoop that’s the real danger. A 15-year-old in Phoenix died after a golf tournament, probably as a result of ice contaminated with Norovirus, transmitted by a sick employee who didn’t wash his hands before scooping.
I might have guessed the chicken sandwich, but I’d have handed over the soda without a second thought.
The ESPN report found violations across the board, in every sport and for nearly every type of available refreshment, making it hard to pinpoint a safe way to nosh your way through a multi-hour sporting event (especially since few venues allow you to bring your own food anymore). California stadiums had among the lowest percentages of vendors with violations, but a “low” percentage isn’t very comforting. If you’re traveling to Canada for your baseball fix, you’re in better shape: inspectors there are more aggressive than in the U.S. (where rules, laws and inspections vary by state) and food establishments have to post a bright red sign visible to the public every time they get a violation. But until the U.S. imposes a similar rule (and I wouldn’t hold my breath: stadium vending is handled by large and powerful companies with plenty of political donation dollars to spend), parents and other customers will be left to make the safety calls on their own.
A few tips for eating safely at the ballpark (and everywhere else):
- Go packaged. Buy the soda in the bottle and the bag of chips, and avoid the food handling concerns.
- Watch the ice and the food prep. If you see bare hands on any food, suck up the long waits and go elsewhere. Or see #1.
- Ask for a hot one. Food that’s just cooked is somewhat safer than food from under the heat lamps.
- Go where somebody cares. If there’s a food vendor in your stadium that looks to be independently owned and run by its operator, check it out. That’s not an official rule, but it’s common sense: business owners care more than part-time employees. (This is also why I prefer diners to chains.)
- Buy your snacks where they don’t prepare raw food. If there’s no raw chicken in the kitchen, there are no chicken juices on your sandwich.
- Keep it simple, sweetheart. Have some sense. This is not the place to order a chicken ceasar salad. Who do you think grilled that chicken? Who washed that lettuce? Just order a hot, freshly fried corn dog and be done with it.
- If in doubt, throw it out. This is tough. You’ve waited a long time. You’re hungry. The game is starting. But if that burrito is lukewarm inside, not eating it is the better choice. Ask for another one (and see #5. Who do you think rolled that burrito, and when?)
With any luck, you’ll be able to enjoy the game from the stands, not the bathroom, and still feel healthy for tomorrow night’s double header.
Photo from sdabel on Flickr.com