More than a quarter of professional sports arenas and stadiums in North American have been slapped with serious health code violations, according to a recent ESPN study. The reported violations range from mice in Cracker Jack boxes to bacteria breeding temperatures, cooks sweating over food to leaky packages of beef and even pesky pigeons.
Out of the 107 venues with substantial records, the three facilities with the highest percentage of food outlets that incurred one or more high-level violations in the two-year period were Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina; Palace of Auburn Hills outside of Detroit, Michigan (which has since closed); and American Airlines Arena in Dallas, Texas. The three facilities were cited for beer leaking from the ceiling, copper cups banned from commercial use and moldy strawberries amongst a lengthy list of violations. At Spectrum Center, 23 out of 25 outlets inspected had high-level violations.
Scoring the fewest high-level violations on the list were NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas; State Farm Arena in Atlanta; and coming in with only one high-level violation across 89 outlets was Oakland’s Oracle Arena built in 1966. The home of NBA’s Golden State Warriors outranked even the closest contender on the list by three percent.
According to the National Association of Concessionaires, concessions at professional sports arenas are a $2 billion industry with many facilities using third party concessionaires such as Levy Restaurants, Delaware North, Aramark or Centerplate.
ESPN’s in-depth Outside the Lines feature asserts that high-level violations differ from region to region, but typically use a version of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Food Code, or comparable rules in Canada. To give an even more nuanced look at food safety at each facility, ESPN compared the venue’s rating with how well other restaurants and food providers in the area faired.
Some venues who scored poorly on the amount of high-level violations actually did better on per-inspection visits than food and beverage facilities in the surrounding area. Of the 107 venues, 73 venues had as good or better ratings than the surrounding areas. Only nine facilities out of the 82 with available data scored lower ratings than their community.
The CEO of Hazel Analytics, a Seattle-based company that provides data and analytics of food-safety inspection reports, told ESPN that sports venues are likely to score better on health regulations since “in some jurisdictions, health departments notify stadium operators when they are planning an inspection because of stadium-access restrictions and security concerns.”
Liggins Coly, who inspects Chesapeake Energy Arena, home to the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, told ESPN that a sport’s venue’s off-and-on operation can often cause problems for equipment designed to keep foods hot or cold. Coly added that a stadium’s size and multiple doors and openings can make bug and rodent control a challenge.
Another challenge for stadiums can be the temporary workforce. Coly explained that venues often use a temporary workforce and “allow nonprofit organizations to run concession stands as fundraising events. As a result, there might be food service workers who are not fully aware of food-handling rules — including proper handwashing — or who are unaware how to properly clean equipment.”
Co-founder and executive director of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention said Patricia Buck told ESPN that sports facilities also face unique risks due to the fact that they serve such a high volume of people in such a short amount of time.
“There will be thousands of people at the stadium and there will be maybe 100 at a restaurant, so the sheer number of people being exposed is going to be higher, so it would tend to be riskier if something like contaminated romaine lettuce was going to be served on a taco,” said Buck, referencing the recent E. coli breakout from romaine lettuce.
Buck added that she does not eat at sports venue because “it just seems to be a very chaotic situation where food is being prepared.”
Check out ESPN’s full list and report here to learn where each major sports facility falls in the rankings.