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(UPDATED) City's Stadium Vendors Get Good Grades Though Inspections Seem Lacking

By Marcus Gilmer in Food on Jul 26, 2010 5:40PM

Trash at a Wrigley Field concession stand; Photo by Katherine of Chicago

Say what you will about Wrigley Field's bleachers or people scromping in the bathrooms at The Cell, at least the food vendors at the city's four major sport stadiums (NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB) apparently get a gold star in terms of (lack of) health code violations. Of the four major stadiums - Wrigley Field, U.S. Cellular Field, United Center, and Soldier Field - only Soldier Field reported any critical violations. According to the report put together by ESPN, 12 percent of vendors at Soldier Field were cited but, "Almost all violations were due to a lack of hot water." The Cell, Wrigley, and UC reported zero percent of vendors as having critical violations. Compare these to, say, the violations found at Florida stadiums, like this one at Sun Life Stadium where the Miami Dolphins play:

In June 2009, an employee complained anonymously that small insects and other debris were blended into frozen alcoholic beverages at a stand where equipment wasn't being cleaned. When inspectors checked, they issued a critical violation for a buildup of slime inside the frozen drinks machine.

But scanning the list, we found it curious how few stadiums got that "zero percent" green star. Of the 107 stadiums listed, nine got that clean bill of health. Besides our three stadiums, three in Canada got the thumbs up as did Gillette Stadium (New England Patriots), Scottrade Center (St. Louis Blues), and Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum (NY Islanders). Two stadiums - the Twins' and Giants/Jets' new homes - weren't reviewed.

Look, we'd like to believe that Chicago is just really, really clean. But we know better. As much as we'd like to think all those concession stands are bastions of sanitary excellence that we should all use as a standard, we figured there's something a bit wonky behind the rankings. And there is (in this city? shocking, we know). In their detailed story to go along with the rankings, ESPN notes of those three zero percent rankings in Chicago: "Three of the four stadiums show no violations, but inspectors showed up when the stadiums were not hosting games, with no food being served or prepared, and no workers present." Which seems, well, pointless. Isn't the best way to check sanitary conditions to inspect it while the food is being prepared and served? Doing otherwise eliminates the odds of being caught on many of the violations that were detailed at other stadiums.

According to ESPN, the good results in Canada are due to such aggressive inspections during games. Jim Chan, health environments manager with Toronto Public Health, said:

"If no one is present, you can only look at the temperature of the refrigeration units, or turn on the tap to see if there's hot or cold water. You're not able to assess the knowledge of food handlers. Are they careful? Are their hands being washed between [handling] raw and cooked meat? Are they smoking?"

Chicago Department of Public Health spokesman Tim Hadac commented on the story for ESPN, and said, "The results speak for themselves. In the 20 and a half years since I started at CDPH, I can't recall a confirmed outbreak of a disease linked to a sports stadium in Chicago." While that may be true, it still doesn't explain why inspections don't take place during games and how this approach may skew the numbers. Hadac hasn't responded to an emailed request for comment on these issues. For now, as we watch the scavenging gulls circle the Friendly Confines of Wrigley in late afternoon, we remain skeptical that any of these stadiums are as tidy as the inspection results would have us believe.

UPDATE: Hadac has responded to our request for comment and gave us the same statement he gave to ESPN. In short, stadiums are considered "medium-risk food establishments" which are usually inspected a minimum of once a year. For sports stadiums, this occurs just prior to the start of the season and are only visited again if there are complaints.

For the most part, stadium food operations do not present unique challenges----at least not any more than a fast food restaurant across the street from the ballpark. The principles involved are all the same, just a slightly different venue. The only obvious difference is the fact that they serve a lot of customers in a short burst of time. The restaurant across the street has its business spread out over time. Stadium food operations are usually categorized as medium-risk.

CDPH typically inspects stadium food service operations annually----typically just before the start of the season. And then again throughout the season on an as-needed basis, if we receive complaints from customers or others. Inspecting before the season starts gives us an excellent opportunity to scrutinize a vendor’s procedures and protocols---to ensure they have the right system in place to minimize risks and prepare, serve and store food safely.

When we inspect, we look for the same things we look at with other food establishments. We look at the condition of the facility; we examine their protocols for preparing, serving and storing food safely; we check their machinery---particularly their ability to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. We consider the five risk factors, as identified by the CDC:

  • Improper Holding Temperatures
  • Poor Personal Hygiene
  • Contaminated Equipment
  • Inadequate Cooking
  • Food from Unsafe Sources

The type of violations that are considered critical violations, are essentially the same as in all food establishments: failure to keep food at safe temperatures; cross contamination (mixing raw and cooked product), infestation by rodents, insects or other vermin; and personal practices of food handlers.

Of course, this still side-steps the issue. If improper hygiene and inadequate cooking are risk factors, how can they be properly assessed when there are no workers present and no cooking being done? In a response, Hadac emphasized the preemptive strategy, adding, "CDPH Food Protection Program inspectors are focusing more on the systemic than the anecdotal."