A live mouse in your Cracker Jack. Mouse droppings in a bag of cookies. Cockroaches in food storage rooms. Welcome to Coors Field in Denver, home of the Colorado Rockies.
An ESPN Outside the Lines survey found that at least half of the food service outlets in 28 percent of sports venues, including Coors Field, were flagged for having unsanitary conditions that pose a risk for a foodborne illness.
In addition to live cockroaches and mice, the violations included chicken, shrimp and sushi stored at temperatures that can breed bacteria; employees wiping their faces with their hands and then handling food for customers; moldy food; and filthy utensils or contaminated equipment.
In fairness to sports arenas, food violations do not necessarily mean a venue is in a perpetually unsafe or unsanitary condition. Mistakes can happen, even in the most upscale environment. But stadium environments are unique because of the large number of people being served in a short period of time – potentially thousands versus a hundred or less at a restaurant – which means the risks to patrons are potentially greater. And stadium concessions are big business. According to the National Association of Concessionaires, food operations at pro sports venues are a $2 billion a year industry in the United States alone.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne disease each year in the United States. The number of people who get sick from food served at sports venues alone is unknown, because food poisoning often goes underreported for a variety of reasons.
Outside the Lines surveyed 111 North American sports venues in various sports. The stadium having the highest percentage of outlets with violations was Spectrum Center in Charlotte, home of the NBA Hornets, with 92 percent reporting high-level health violations. At the other end of the spectrum was Oracle Arena in Oakland, home of the NBA Warriors, which only had one outlet of the 89 inspected record a high-level violation.
At Yankee Stadium, 79.1 percent of the outlets had one or more high-level violations over the two-year period covered by the survey, 2016 and 2017. That number placed the stadium sixth from the bottom on the list. However, as they’re nursing their aching tummies - or worse - Yankees fans can take solace in the fact the stadium performed better overall than the average of all New York City food outlets. Ditto for Coors Field, which also performed better than food establishments in the surrounding area, despite having 71.2 percent of the food outlets recording one or more high-level food-safety violation in the same timeframe.
Not all the violations can be attributed to national food service companies. Some venues self-operate their concessions. Others allow nonprofit organizations to run concession stands as fundraisers and volunteers may not be properly trained in food-handling rules.
Perhaps the best protection for sports fans is to eat before the game. But if you plan to eat at the stadium, you might want to have some Tums and your favorite probiotics handy.
Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.