Sports fans and food safety

At Soldier Field, where the Bears and Packers play Sunday for the NFC title, food venues haven't been inspected during the season in at least three years, records show. Brian Cassella/Tribune photo (Brian Cassella, Chicago Tribune / January 16, 2011)

During the Chicago Fire's season at Toyota Park, a local public health official is on site for at least one game to ensure food is safe to eat. She'll stick a thermometer in hot dogs or throw milk away that's been out too long.

It's a practice the village of Bridgeview, which owns the soccer stadium, has maintained since 2006. Similarly, the city of Evanston has inspected Ryan Field, home of Northwestern's football team, before games begin the last two years.

But in Chicago, fans have no such assurances that the food they buy has been checked over. Health officials almost always conduct their inspections of the city's major stadiums during the offseason, when concessions are limited or not operating, a review of city records shows.

"I'll bet everything looks clean then," said Sarah Klein, attorney with the food safety program at the Center of Science in the Public Interest. "Food safety is not theoretical. It can't be measured before you start cooking. It really needs to be measured and looked at when the kitchen is hot and the people are waiting."

At Soldier Field, site of Sunday's Bears-Packers playoff game, the food venues, restrooms and kitchens haven't been inspected during the football season in at least three years, records show. At Wrigley Field and U.S. Cellular Field, regular inspections were held a few days before the Cubs' and White Sox's first home games the last three years.

Meanwhile, no inspections have been recorded in more than a year at the United Center, an apparent violation of the city and state code. Records also show that the city hasn't met minimum inspection rules set by the state for sit-down restaurants at the stadiums and other venues thought to pose the highest risk of causing foodborne illness.

If a city health inspector visits a Chicago stadium in the middle of a season, it is usually in response to a public complaint.

In response to questions submitted by the Tribune, the city issued a statement that said inspections are performed annually before season starts because it provides the "optimal time" to educate food service operators on food safety.

"We are confident in our methods and proud of the work we do to help protect the health of the literally millions of people who eat at our city's sports venues every year," the statement said. "The results speak for themselves: In at least the last 20 years in Chicago (with thousands of professional sporting and entertainment events attended by literally millions of fans), there has not been a confirmed outbreak of foodborne illness linked to a sports stadium in the city."

In contrast, Evanston inspects food venues during the first home game and has returned for follow-up visits, sometimes finding violations involving food temperatures.

"We do it when it's in operation simply because that's the time when we can actually test the food," said Carl Caneva, who oversees Evanston's health inspections. "We're not sure what the value is with no one there."

The Illinois Department of Public Health delegates health inspections of food venues to local governments. Establishments that pose the highest health risks — those that use raw ingredients extensively, for example — must be visited twice a year, according to state rules the city says it follows. At stadiums, these establishments are usually limited to main kitchens or full-service restaurants, such as the Stadium Club at Wrigley Field.

At Soldier Field, just a few venues — kitchens and suites, for example — are classified high-risk. But in the last three years, records show, the venues have been inspected just once a year. The inspections occurred in either May or June, months when the facility is better defined by concerts than by football games.

High-risk venues at U.S. Cellular Field and Wrigley Field that require two inspections a year also were inspected once, records show. Those inspections were carried out a few days before Opening Day.

Most fans, of course, eat at concession stands, where vendors take orders and other employees serve the food. These carry a medium level of risk because the food requires preparation, yet there is limited interaction with raw ingredients. Such venues must be inspected at least once a year.

At only one stadium in the last three years did the city conduct regular inspections during a team's season.

That was at the United Center in October and November 2009, when the city inspected the facility's more than five dozen licensed venues. Even then, the inspections were sometimes performed in the morning — not at night when Bulls or Blackhawks games take place. Since then, records show no further inspections of the stadium's food venues.

Eva Yusa, a spokeswoman for Levy Restaurants, the vendor at Wrigley Field, the United Center and premium areas at U.S. Cellular Field, did not directly answer submitted questions but said in a statement that the safety of guests is the company's top priority.

"We have a stringent food safety and sanitation program in place to train our team members on the proper safety procedures and food handling techniques required to meet or exceed our standards as well as those of the local health department," she said.