A recent report in Sports Illustrated explored which Major League Baseball stadiums had the safest food and revealed some surprising things happening at the ballparks. By analyzing recent inspection data, the publication exposed some big food safety concerns, such as rodent droppings in kitchens, expired food, employees not washing their hands, and food stored at the wrong temperatures.
“Consumers have a right to be concerned about some of the food that they are eating and purchasing in many of these stadiums,” says Robert L. Buchanan, a professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Science and Center for Food Safety and Security Systems at the University of Maryland. “If I was a vendor or stadium owner, heaven help you if you have a large outbreak—the number of people that could be impacted could run in the thousands.”
On any given game day, stadiums sell tens of thousands of hot dogs, hamburgers, nachos, brats, cotton candy, plus beer and soda, and it’s all done in a relatively short period of time. And being that it’s done by part-time workers (many of them without much experience in food preparation), in cramped conditions and often with very little sink space or automatic washers available, it’s no wonder that violations occur.
“Safe food handling practices should be used by people preparing food no matter where the venue is,” says Tamika Sims, PhD, director of food technology communications at the International Food Information Council. “Cleaning hands, surfaces, and utensils, avoiding cross-contamination, cooking food to proper temperatures, and storing food correctly are all key at sporting venues and beyond.”
Up to the Challenge
Dan Gallery V, president of Gallery carts, a manufacturer of carts, kiosks, and portables located in numerous NFL stadiums and hockey arenas across the country, says food safety, and the safety of the patrons is the number one concern of food service providers at sporting venues, but challenges exist.
“One of the more difficult ones is being able to offer great food all over a stadium. When a venue is being designed, there is constant discussion about how a concession stand can support a fleet of mobile carts,” he says. “While there are many different ways to transport food long distances, it becomes more difficult in a venue where you have multiple levels and the carts are spread out across miles of concourses.”
The other difficult aspect is keeping everything clean at all times, and Gallery says it’s important that providers clean all of the equipment after events, before events, and during events to ensure all of the food is safe.
Buchanan says that because of the lack of kitchens and space at sporting venues, they try to get around that by bringing in foods from a central commissary, but that introduces concerns about keeping hot food hot and cold food cold.
“It’s the same challenges that food trucks have or those running booths at state fairs—it’s hard to stretch adequately what you have at the beginning of the game to the later innings, and keep everything at the proper temperature,” he says. “It’s a mass feeding event with minimal facilities in terms of infrastructure and that can be problematic.”
The top thing that food vendors should be doing, Buchanan says, is properly training all employees on food safety and having someone on site reviewing procedures and making sure that all staff is complying.
“Everyone needs to understand the safety procedures and live up to them,” he says. “If you’re serving hot and cold food, periodically check the temperatures. And make sure you have some rudimentary cleaning facilities to keep equipment clean.”
Gallery says food safety needs to be a priority of everyone involved with the food. Wiping down countertops, wearing protective hair guards, and cleaning the floors regularly can all cut down on problems.
“Ensure everyone is trained in food safety protocol and that all of the equipment is functioning properly,” he says. “You must have the appropriate safeguards and tests in place at all times.”
The SI Report
Among Sports Illustrated’s findings was that nearly a third of the league’s stadiums had more than 100 total violations, with 18 ballparks displaying critical violations in at least a quarter of their concession stands.
“The NFL did a big review about 10 years ago on food facilities and results were similar as there are always going to be problems popping up in environments like this,” Buchanan says. “Still, it’s an issue they have a good track record with considering the number of people they feed and the real limitation of facilities.”
Sports fans can take some comfort in knowing that there has never been a major food safety outbreak at any sporting event, but just like any time they buy food in an open environment, there is always going to be some risk.