Last Updated Jul 26, 2010 6:26 PM EDT
ESPN examined health inspection reports for food and beverage vendors at all 107 North American sports stadiums-- homes to Major League Baseball, the National Football League, National Hockey League and National Basketball Association games.
The findings in a nutshell: Your chance of eating tainted food at a sports stadium was worse than 50-50 at 28% of the sports venues where health inspectors discovered the majority of food vendors had "major" or "critical" health violations, ranging from evidence of rats to cooking at temperatures that weren't hot enough to kill bacteria. ESPN's frightening (but fabulous) interactive map, shows that the most dangerous stadiums for food are concentrated in Florida, where seven of eight stadiums reported health violations at between 75% and 100% of the vendors operating in those stadiums.
Thanks to ESPN, savvy fans can check the potential toxicity of their food before they pay $5 for ball park hot dogs that might make you sick. Checking before you go to the game would be wise, added Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America, because you're a captive audience once you get there. Stadiums usually don't allow fans to bring in their own food.
If the bulk of the vendors in your stadium are sketchy, it would be smarter to starve rather than eat or drink what they're serving. (An employee at one Florida stadium said his operation was sweeping bugs and other debris into the blended drinks.)
But the bigger problem is that most cities don't require food vendors and restaurants to prominently display how they rate when it comes to food safety, said Waldrop. So once you're in the ball park, you have little way of knowing whether the food is safe. (This may be the time to pull out your iPhone to search for health department reports.)
In a handful of cities and states, you must list your health department ranking -- from A to C (establishments that rate 'F's are shut down by health inspectors) -- prominently in the window. After these ratings were required in Los Angeles in the late 1990s, food related hospitalizations dropped 13%, according to a report done for the National Environmental Health Association.
But in most cities and states these ratings are not required and you eat at your own risk, said Waldrop. Health department reports are increasingly published on the web, Waldrop added. But you've got to be organized enough to check them before you go. The federal government has never passed a national requirement for food safety transparency. But it may well be needed, he said.
Moreover, there's no national rulebook for health inspections, Paula Lavigne, the ESPN reporter who did the story, told me in an interview. So, where Chicago stadiums look good on ESPN's map, the city's health department "will tell you very clearly that they don't inspect when there's an event going on or there's food being served," Lavigne said. Consequently, one of the most dangerous violations -- cooking food at dangerously low temperatures -- would never be uncovered there, she said.
"A larger policy solution is really the issue," Waldrop said. "Consumers need to have some way to know about the food safety when they are going out."