ANNAPOLIS – Food operators at FedEx Field were told to throw out or reheat food during health inspections because the food was otherwise unsafe to eat, a Capital News Service investigation of county records found.
“We want the facilities to understand proper food temperature requirements – keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold,” said Prince George’s County Food Protection Program Chief Alan R. Heck.
County inspectors have performed random inspections of the professional football stadium several times a year since it opened in 1997.
This year, three inspectors instructed operators to discard food maintained at unsafe temperatures at the Landover stadium.
Discarding food is a sign that the inspectors are doing their jobs, food safety experts said, even though bacteria might not have been present.
“Most of the foods I’ve seen at stadiums pose relatively low risk,” said Steven Grover, a former environmental health sanitarian and National Restaurant Association vice president of health and safety regulatory affairs.
Stadiums choose foods that fans want and that are easy to prepare, Grover said. Those foods pose less risk than many others.
During random inspections – four this year – the Prince George’s County Division of Environmental Health routinely checks stadium food operations for overall cleanliness and proper food preparation.
If food items are below the state-approved temperature of 140 degrees, the inspector instructs the operator to heat them up. If the temperature is well below the approved level and the inspector thinks the food has been sitting for a long time, it is ordered discarded.
Operators at FedEx Field were told to reheat food 18 times this year, down from 27 times last year. Three inspections resulted in discarded food this year, compared to seven last season.
An inspector in August directed a vendor to discard 15 hot dogs at a pre-season game against the New England Patriots for registering less than 120 degrees.
Last season, an October 1999 inspection report said 15 hamburgers, a chicken tender and three hot dogs were discarded at a club-level food stand. In June of that year, 62 hamburgers were discarded for being well below acceptable temperature.
FedEx Field seats 85,407 fans, the highest occupancy of any NFL stadium. The Redskins have sold out every home game since the stadium opened in 1997. This season they will host 10 pre-season and regular- season games.
“If you think about the 80,000 plus fans who come to this stadium,” said Redskins Senior Vice President Karl Swanson, “and the hundreds of thousands of hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken tenders they consume, while we work toward perfection, that quantity (of discarded food) certainly is acceptable.”
The Redskins split its food operations last year, leaving Volume Services America in charge of concessions, but putting new vendor Ridgewells catering in charge of luxury boxes and club-level food service.
The questioned food probably was not dangerous to stadium-goers, food safety experts said. There is, however, some risk of the food-borne bacteria E. coli growing on hamburger meat and salmonella on chicken when not properly stored or cooked.
There is a motto, Grover said, that all capable inspectors live by: “When in doubt, throw it out.”
“Even though the investigators are throwing out products, they’re throwing them out long before a risk occurs,” said James Nataro, a University of Maryland School of Medicine microbiology and pediatrics professor. Nataro said the short duration of football games is barely enough time for bacteria to grow, although it can happen.