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Don't Let ESPN Talk You Out Of That Chili Dog

ESPN's "investigative report" on stadium food shouldn't be the reason you don't eat the nachos at your local ballpark.

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You would think by now most people would kind of know what they're getting when it comes to stadium concession stand food. We all know it's expensive. We've been complaining about $10 beers since they cost $3. We all know the food is bad for us. Sure, you've got a few healthy (well, healthier) menu options like salads and grilled chicken wraps, but we're really talking about hot dogs, pretzels, beer and sodas. It's comfort (junk) food prepared cheaply in mass quantities, sold at premium prices, designed to be shoved down one's gullet while watching a game.

Ideally, if you're a concessionaire, it smells good enough to make people want to eat it and it's salty enough to make them want to wash it down with a beverage or two. It's not haute cuisine and should never, ever be option A on anybody's healthy diet menu. It's basically the same thing as eating the food at the state fair: consider it a bonus if you don't get sick eating it.

But a new "investigative report" from ESPN's Outside The Lines (OTL) has generated new concerns about the carbonated sugar water and fried lard we stand in line to buy.

Presented in the traditional "what-you-don't-know-about-tissue-paper-could-kill-you" manner that we've come to expect from investigative journalism on television, the OTL report mentions cockroaches, mold and workers ignoring (sometimes blatantly) safe food handling procedures. All very nasty things that nobody wants associated with places where they eat.

The report certainly touched a nerve in the Tampa Bay area as Tropicana Field, home of the Rays, was mentioned as having 100% of vendors "in violation". That's right, there's not one single place to buy a food or beverage item at a Rays game that didn't fail a health inspection. Well, actually that's not the case.

The thumbnail version of OTL's report on the Trop says "Several violations addressed dirty countertops, utensils and equipment. Although every report indicated a critical violation, all vendors met basic inspection standards to keep operating." So in other words, while all were cited for violations, some quite serious, none of them failed an inspection.

It's difficult to drill down and find the data but it is possible to find the reports on Tropicana Field's concession stands for yourself at the Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation's web site. For instance, a report from January 22, 2010 for "141 Field Vending" (presumably the stands underneath the left field seating) lists several violations, five described as "critical", two as "non-critical", including

  • "No conspicuously located thermometer in holding unit (critical)"
  • "In-use utensil for nonpotentially hazardous food not stored in a clean, protected location. ice scoop stored on top of ice machine."
  • "Observed an open beverage container on a food preparation table or over/next to clean equipment/utensils (critical)"
  • "Observed buildup of slime in the interior top of ice machine (critical)"
  • "Observed single-service items stored on floor"
  • "Observed spray hose at dish sink lower than flood rim of sink (critical)"
  • "Hand wash sink lacking proper hand drying provisions (critical)".

However, the next, and most recent published inspection report, dated May 18, 2010, for the same stand says simply "Met Inspection Standards During This Visit", and lists no violations of any kind.

Note the inspection dates: The one with numerous violations took place in January, when that stand may very well have been sitting empty and unused for four months (when one might not be too surprised that "proper hand drying provisions" also known as "a roll of paper towels" are absent). During the season, when people are working and fans are eating there, that very same stand received a perfect score.

This, at least to me, would not indicate a pattern of negligent practices. I've got to believe that if such a pattern were suspected, the health inspector wouldn't hesitate to shut it down. I've also got to believe that with how competitive the concessions industry is and the millions of dollars at stake in getting and keeping the contract at any venue with a major league sports tenant, Centerplate Inc. (Tropicana Field's concessionaire) is going to take every step possible to make sure that doesn't happen.

None of this is to excuse sloppy, inept and dangerous food handling, which undoubtedly occurs. Nobody should be expected to accept the presence of cockroaches and mold anywhere near where their food is being prepared. If you find the OTL report so unsettling and disgusting that you can't bring yourself to eat the food at the Trop (or any stadium or arena, for that matter), that's your choice and perfectly understandable.

But you should know you're liable to find conditions just as bad if not worse at any restaurant you care to name. Just ask anybody who has ever worked in one.

And you should also know that nobody watches or reads "investigative reports" that say everything is fine and dandy.

Photographs by, thelastminute, turtlemom nancy , fesek, kthypryn, justinwright, sue_elias, pointnshoot, and scrapstothefuture used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.