ESPN‘s Outside the Lines recently published the findings of its examination of health department inspection reports for the 107 venues that hosted teams last year in four leagues:  the NFL, MLB, NHL, and the NBA. Thirty of those venues had terribly filthy report cards: Half the vendors in those 30 stadiums and arenas were cited for at least one critical or major violation of the health code.

The Verizon Center, in particular, failed spectacularly. According to ESPN’s survey, 100 percent of the vendors at the Chinatown arena had critical health code violations. (Quote from the sidebar: “Mice droppings, a critical violation in Washington, were found at at least 10 vendors.”) The concessions at Verizon are run by ARAMARK and Levy Restaurants.

In response to all this bad news, ESPN almost pissed its pants at the thought that someone might get sick from ordering a sliced brisket sandwich from an underpaid, under-trained vendor who’d rather be anywhere than at an arena serving some corporate clodhopper who paid $150 to watch a sporting event. Writes Paula Lavigne, a reporter in ESPN’s Enterprise Unit:

While there hasn’t been a documented mass outbreak of foodborne illness at a professional sports stadium, fans, players and coaches have said they have fallen ill from food, including Red Sox manager Terry Francona, who blamed bad sushi in the clubhouse for a bout of food poisoning he had before a series playoff game in Anaheim last fall.

Waldrop and other food safety experts said that many cases of food poisoning go unreported. Even when fans do complain, food poisoning — which can hit within hours of eating contaminated food or take days to appear — is hard to prove.

First of all, anyone who orders sushi at the ballpark deserves what he gets. Second, most food-borne illnesses don’t hit consumers that quickly, which is one reason why food poisoning is hard to trace. Many assume it was their last meal that caused the discomfort when it could have been an earlier one.

But whatever you think of health inspections — personally, I think diners trust them far too much to determine an eatery’s “safety” — they are the best tool we have at present. So I don’t discount them altogether, especially when they report systematic failures or note that food is not being held at proper temperatures, which I consider more dangerous than mouse poop lying around. (Hell, if I worried about mouse poop, I’d never eat at home, where we have our own problems with the little critters.)

Will I ever eat food again at the Verizon Center? Of course I will, but I’ll follow my usual habit by ordering relatively “safe” foods — like hot dogs which are usually stored in steam drawers or kept warm on rollers. Or just buy a bag of peanuts, which, of course, can have its own problems, but at least they’re not tied to arena-specific food handling practices.

So how did other area venues fare?

  • At Nationals Park, whose concessions are run by Levy Restaurants, a quarter of the vendors were cited for major or critical health code violations. Reports ESPN: “One location received a critical violation for not having a D.C.-certified food manager’s card.”
  • At FedExField, 36 percent of the vendors were cited for critical violations, including an “employee [who] touched his/her face and then prepared food with his/her hands without washing or changing gloves.”
  • Baltimore’s sports venues, by contrast, fared far better. At M&T Bank Stadium, home of the Ravens, only four percent of the vendors were cited for critical violations, while at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, only 9 percent of the vendors crossed into critical territory.

So there you have it. Go to Baltimore if you want to eat and watch sports. Your odds of dying from the concessions are apparently much smaller.

Photo by izik via Flickr Creative Commons, Attribution License