Foul Food

By Lavigne, Paula | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Foul Food

Lavigne, Paula, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal

Inspectors find problems inside sports stadiums

Fans visiting a professional sports stadium to cheer their teams can stomach spending $6 for a hot dog or even $10 for a grilled salmon sandwich. What they don't expect is a side of fruit flies and mouse droppings - and the potential that their meals could make them sick.

After reading stories about food-safety problems at sports stadiums in Anaheim, Cincinnati and Indianapolis, I wondered what we could find in a national review of stadium food safety practices. We considered focusing on just one league but decided to expand our analysis to all 107 professional baseball, NFL, NHL and NBA venues open in 2009 in the United States and Canada. By the end of our reporting, we had read thousands of inspection reports on cockroaches, rat feces, moldy food, expired milk and dirty hands.

"Outside the Lines" associate producer Lindsay Rovegno and I spent the next several weeks figuring out each agency responsible for inspecting each venue. In big cities such as Boston or Houston, the city health department inspected stadiums. In smaller cities, such as Green Bay, Wis., the county health department does the reports. And in a few places, most notably Florida and Alberta, Canada, food safety inspections are done at the state/provincial level. We obtained the data either by pulling reports off websites or submitting a public records request to agencies.

We sought copies of the last routine food safety inspection report for any place inside a stadium that sold food or beverages - which included concession stands, certain pushcarts, restaurants and central kitchens. We figured that using the most recent full inspection report would be a good benchmark for comparison.

Some inspectors issue letter grades, whereas others issue numeric scores. We needed something that would work across multiple jurisdictions. We quickly noticed that all jurisdictions divided their violations into critical or major problems versus non-critical or minor problems.

Those definitions and standards stem from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Food Code, which is a set of guidelines that most departments use for food safety inspections. (The Canadian rules are similar.) They define critical or major violations as those that pose a risk for foodborne illness. They include problems such as food not cooked to a proper temperature, raw food coming into contact with ready-to-serve food, and employees who don't wash their hands. However, not all departments were up to date with the most recent code. And because the food code is a guideline - not law - local departments were free to make changes, so there was some variance in the number of critical violations due to those discrepancies.

If reporting this story within the confines of a state or province, you'll probably have an easier time because the definitions are generally the same. But even then, you might find that some local departments, or certain inspectors, are more or less rigorous than others, and that can account for differences in the number of violations. (That could be a separate story.) If you find that a particular inspector never gives a critical violation, it might be worth examining. We heard from some health officials that companies have been known to "inspector shop."

Another thing to watch for is how departments schedule inspections. Are they visiting when the place is closed and there are no customers? It's kind of hard to know whether employees are washing their hands - one of the most serious violations - when there are no employees present. For example, Chicago stadiums had few if any violations, but were they really that clean? By comparing the dates of the inspections and the schedule of events at the facilities, we realized inspectors were visiting while the place was vacant. We made a point to mention that in our online piece to help explain why they appeared so spotless.

Overcoming data hurdles

Whether we were pulling the reports online or having the health department do it, we ran into one problem over and over again, which should have been obvious from the beginning: Do you know the actual name of any concession stand at your favorite stadium? …

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