Public Health

Why Handwashing Is Key to Ballpark Food Safety

A new study shines a light on public health protection at America's stadiums.


Robert Byron / Dreamstime

In an interesting before-you-reach-for-that-hot-dog style report released last week, Sports Illustrated compared and ranked the food-safety climate at every Major League Baseball park in the United States. Seattle's Safeco Field came in first, while Tampa Bay's Tropicana Field brought up the rear. My favorite (and hometown) ballpark, Boston's Fenway, ranked second.

Among its conclusions, the report found "almost a third of the league's stadiums had over 100 total violations, including both Los Angeles clubs. One Chicago stadium failed its routine inspection for the second summer in a row. Eighteen ballparks had critical violations in at least a quarter of their concession stands."

Some of the violations reported are objectively gross: "Camden Yards had evidence of rodent infestation at eight different food entities and Yankee Stadium had 14 stands overrun with filth flies."

The SI report updates the first such study, published by ESPN in 2009.

Food safety at sporting events has long intrigued me. The first time I ever really thought about food safety is intimately tied to sports. The year was 1980. I was seven years old. As I watched an episode of Quincy, M.E.—titled "Deadly Arena"—I saw the title character engage in what IMDB characterizes as "a race against time to find the source of" a botulism outbreak at a sports stadium "before the field becomes littered with bodies."

Some of the best stadium food I've eaten in the years since has been the Ichiroll (an Ichiro Suzuki-themed sushi roll) and the grasshoppers at Safeco. The worst food I've ever eaten at a sporting event—football, rather than baseball—was a crab and cheese pretzel at FedEx Field in Maryland.

But the relative tastiness of a stadium's food doesn't have much if anything to do with the safety of that food.

"The real risk, it seems to me at the ballpark, is the handling of food," said UCLA Prof. Michael Roberts—with whom I serve on the board of the Academy of Food Law & Policy—in comments to SI. "That's where you've got handlers cooking the food, handing it out, managing refrigeration and heating. … So it seems that the most important players in this would be local level, the county inspectors, the folks that are there to ensure quality and safety measures are being followed."

Others SI spoke with echoed Roberts. And I will, too. He's exactly right. Data back him up. Nearly six out of every ten cases of foodborne illness in this country are caused by norovirus, which is transmitted most often from person to person due to poor handwashing after using a restroom.

According to a 2016 article published in the Journal of Food Protection, every state requires workers to wash their hands after using a restroom.

Requiring foodservice employees to wash their hands after using a restroom is—in a bubble—smart lawmaking. But other rules may offset the handwashing rule.

For example, fire-safety laws requiring that bathroom doors open inward, rather than outward, means in most cases that a person must touch a door handle before they leave a restroom. So a foodservice worker may do everything they're supposed to—washing their hands before leaving a restroom—but their best efforts may be foiled by having to share a bathroom-door handle (and the associated germs) with people who don't wash their hands.

The FDA's model food code recognizes the potential for re-contamination after washing one's hands.

"TO avoid recontaminating their hands … FOOD EMPLOYEES may use disposable paper towels or similar clean barriers when touching surfaces such as manually operated faucet handles on a HANDWASHING SINK or the handle of a restroom door," it states.

But many foodservice establishments are swapping out environmentally unsound disposable paper towels for efficient, modern air dryers. As more and more restaurants move to fancy Dyson-style air driers, fewer and fewer restaurants even have paper towels in their restrooms, making it difficult to open a bathroom door without touching the handle.

Sports stadiums, airports, and other venues that often swap out bathroom doors entirely for visual barriers might be ahead of the curve in ensuring both food safety and fire safety. Many also place hand sanitizer in key spots throughout the venue. These are smart steps.

Finally, it's worth noting that food-safety rules differ from state to state. States are free to adopt the FDA food code in whole, in part, or not at all. SI reports one of the more common violations was a lack of gloves worn by foodservice workers to handle food. But only three quarters of states prohibit bare-hand contact with food. And, as I've written before, data suggest better food-safety outcomes are likely if foodservice workers do not wear gloves to handle food.

When I use the restroom at home, I wash my hands in the restroom. And if I go to the kitchen to prepare food afterwards, I wash my hands once more in the kitchen. In fact, I wash my hands in the kitchen every time I reenter for any reason and plan to handle food there. That's a commonsense approach I think state foodservice rules should embrace.