Flies In The F&B Ointment

From “bad sushi” to “mouse excreta,” ESPN says some of America’s sports palaces really do have it all when it comes to concessions, in a report compiled for its popular “Outside the Lines” series and released July 26.

The sports cable network reviewed health department inspection reports for F&B vendors at 107 venues in the U.S. and Canada, and not only did many of them tally “critical violations” with at least half their vendors, at Florida’s Tropicana Field – home of baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays – 100 percent of the vendors scored such violations.

Canadian sports fans, and those in the Northeast U.S., can breathe a little easier. According to an interactive map available on ESPN.com, most venues scored well with fewer than 10 percent of vendors with violations.

But Floridians, in addition to those unlucky Rays fans, might want to consider sneaking in their own snacks – all eight venues surveyed had violations among at least 60 percent of their vendors.

Most of the critical and major violations unearthed by health inspectors involved food being stored at improper temperatures and questionable hygiene among food handlers. But some venues experienced rodent and insect problems, with mouse feces – and in one case, mice both dead and alive – found in some locations. Cockroaches were found hunkered down in others.

And it’s not just the occasional cold hot dog or warm sushi sold to the proletariat that’s suspect. Sometimes it’s the high-end booze in the bars. Fruit flies were found floating in a bottle of Chivas Regal at one stadium, while “coffin flies” had invaded a bottle of cognac at another. “In one of [a Pittsburgh] arena’s higher-end clubs, inspectors found a live cockroach on top of a soda dispenser holster behind the bar,” the report said.

Digging through the posted reports unveils some horrific, but anecdotal, examples of clueless staff behavior (including volunteers). One inspector watched as a worker scraped food off a spatula on the edge of a trash can, then try to continue using the spatula without cleaning it. Another wiped his nose with his bare hands before digging back in to his work.

ESPN acknowledges that health inspection protocols differ widely depending upon jurisdiction. Some are conducted by a state office, others by county. The standards are not uniform across the board, though the terminology might be the same. And at least in Chicago, inspectors won’t observe conditions during actual events unless there is a complaint, according to ESPN.

“Outside the Lines” submitted its findings to Dr. Robert Buchanan, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Food Safety and Security Systems. He’s spent the last 10 years overseeing food safety research at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which sets the guidelines by which most U.S. health departments conduct inspections, according to ESPN.

“That number [the 30 venues with a majority of food establishments having critical violations], based on comparisons of the data I’ve been able to find on restaurants in general, is substantially higher than I would have expected,” he told ESPN. “Certainly, if you have a high rate of facilities within a stadium coming up with critical deficiencies, that to me strikes of systemic errors in either management of the stadium or in the infrastructure of the stadium, and both of them need to be corrected.”

But anecdotal evidence alone isn’t reflective of the efforts facility managers and food vendors make in order to maintain safe standards while pushing a massive volume of F&B through the stands on game day.

“To say it’s a critical violation, it sends a pang of fear in the public’s mind that they’re not being looked out for, and that’s not the case,” Richard Andersen, chairman of the Industry Affairs Council with the International Association of Assembly Managers, told ESPN. “These are moral people. They’re trying to do the right thing. … the last thing they want to do is have something not go well.”