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Health reports call foul on some stadium eats

CALGARY - An investigation into food safety at sports venues across North America puts some Canadian eats in the penalty box but suggests chowing down while cheering is still pretty safe.

CALGARY - An investigation into food safety at sports venues across North America puts some Canadian eats in the penalty box but suggests chowing down while cheering is still pretty safe.

Rexall Place in Edmonton fared the worst in Canada, with one quarter of vendors listed for a critical violation, while all three Ontario facilities, including Toronto's Air Canada Centre, scored a clean bill of health.

The research, conducted for the ESPN television show "Outside the Lines," looked at the most recent 2009 health department inspection reports for all 107 North American arenas and stadiums that were home to major sports teams.

It calculated what percentage of vendors at each received a "critical" or "major" health violation on the inspection. Violations can range from failing to have soap at a sink to storing food at improper temperatures or handling a scoop for ice with bare hands.

"We should be concerned. These data are not good," said Rick Holley, a professor of food safety at the University of Manitoba.

One of the violations listed at Rexall included workers using contaminated cleaning items.

A search of the arena in Alberta Health Services inspection records brings up a number of violations at different locations over the last several years.

For example, an inspection in June found a ground-beef-and-cheese pizza being stored at 16C. Food safety guidelines dictate that food must be stored below 4C or above 60C. Another inspection in 2009 found that hamburgers had been left out at room temperature for a prolonged period of time.

A spokesman for Northlands, the company that operates Rexall Place, said managers and employees at the area receive food-safety training from Alberta Health Services.

Brian Leadbetter said food safety is a "top priority".

"If and when issues do arise, steps are certainly taken to ensure that they are addressed immediately and that corrective steps are taken."

He added that it's difficult to compare results across jurisdictions that might have different food-safety standards in place.

Calgary's Pengrowth Saddledome came in just behind Rexall, with 14 per cent of vendors listed with critical violations.

The example given by ESPN includes utensils and equipment at one location not being cleaned and sanitized properly.

Mark Vaillant, vice-president of food and beverage for the Calgary Flames, said that problem was fixed immediately upon inspection.

He said he wasn't aware of a single time a food vendor was closed for violations at the arena.

"Our goal is obviously to ensure that — we have over a million and a half fans come through this building every year — that they're safe."

Canadian sports centres fared far better than many of the American facilities examined.

All three centres in Colorado had violation rates of more than 60 per cent. Florida was by far the worst, with seven facilities with violation rates of 75 per cent or more. At Tropicana Field, home to the Tampa Bay Rays, 100 per cent of vendors were given a violation.

Holley said serving food at sporting events can be tricky because a high volume of food will be purchased at one time, meaning it needs to be prepared in advance and kept stored safely.

He said there's no clear reason that the Canadian facilities should have done so much better than their American counterparts.

"I hope the restaurants in Canada are better, but we have a lot of food-borne illness outbreaks in Canada."

At the Bell Centre in Montreal, three per cent of vendors had critical violations, and at General Motors Place in Vancouver the number was nine per cent.

The other two facilities with no violations were the Rogers Centre in Toronto and Scotiabank Place in Ottawa.

Holley said he'd like to know whether the figures correspond to how much safety training different companies give their employees.

He added that the data should send a message to the companies who supply sport centres that they need to pay more attention to food safety.

"So far companies that are involved in this kind of activity have been very fortunate that there have not been, so far as we know, large outbreaks of food-borne illness caused by these kinds of venues."

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