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Video: The dirty truth about food courts

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    >>> popular dining spot for a lot of families. but food courts can have the disturbing problem of health violations.

    >> and it's a quick get a bite. our investigation checked into some of the most popular malls in the country and found critical health violations that could make you sick. "today" takes you behind the counter of food courts to show you what's really going on.

    >> reporter: within minutes at this boston mall, we saw it. a cockroach climbing the wall right next to a grill at this popular japanese place.

    >> you're kidding. i wish you hadn't told me that.

    >> reporter: most aren't as obvious. bare hands on the food, raw meat sitting out, filthy kitchens to name a few. we traveled across the country and to the mall of america in minnesota and boston and new york city . we traveled with food safety expert, cindy rice and pulled hundreds of inspection reports that exposed the dirty truth. rice says food courts may be more risky than average restaurants because of tighter workspaces and higher volumes.

    >> reporter: they start cutting corners?

    >> they start cutting corners if you're not careful.

    >> reporter: we found it too often. 43% of vendors had critical violations that could make you sick. at the mall of america , 68% had critical violations. at the new york seaport mall, a tourist hot spot , a whopping 48% of vendors had critical violations. one of the most common unsafe food temperatures, hot foods kept too cold, cold foods too hot can lead to dangerous bacteria growth. we found it a lot, these raw burgers just sitting out. even if cooked later, they could still make you sick, so could these kabobs piled too high and too far from the heat.

    >> when you go up to a deli case holding hot foods, ask for the one on the bottom layer, that's usually the hottest one in the pile.

    >> not the one on top sitting out a couple hours?

    >> that's right.

    >> reporter: not just meat. produce kept too warm can grow bacteria, like these salads at room temp . those these food cups look refrigerated, don't be too sure.

    >> touch the outside of the deli case.

    >> reporter: this one was warm.

    >> this one was warm and risky.

    >> reporter: and another is rodents and insects. remember this cockroach next to the grill. the same vendor had mouse droppings in their storage area. we confronted the manager.

    >> do you have a pest control problem here?

    >> no.

    >> reporter: we just saw a live cockroach.

    >> reporter: the company told us it never had food problems and always gets outstanding suspicions. but we saw different on our video.

    >> if you have one cockroach, chances are you have thousands in the walls and ceilings waiting to come out at night.

    >> reporter: an inspection report shows since 2009 , more than half the vendors have hat pest violations. at the charcoal grill, the inspector saw mice ex-cretia and in this food prep area. and the owner had no comment.

    >> how comen is it to have rodents and insects inside the food area.

    >> they're all of concern and will have salmonella, e.coli, viruss.

    >> reporter: but rice says most comes from the workers. in boston , watch this worker put her eye drops in, then hand out food samples.

    >> it's a problem because bass sbass -- she has bacteria and mucouses on the foods.

    >> reporter: watch this worker wiping the counter with a fit the rag, no gloves and then handling the food. sometimes cross contamination can send you to the hospital.

    >> it hurt so bad. something was wrong.

    >> reporter: stan had eaten mexican food at this maul in illinois and days later, rushed to the emergency room with e.coli poisoning. doctors said he could have died. a department of health investigation found five customers got sick most likely from cross contamination from the same food vendor with workers accidentally mixing salsa with raw meat .

    >> do they know the consequences of taking childrens and people's lives in their hands.

    >> reporter: that vendor is out of business. we found 6 out of 7 restaurants had critical health violations.

    >> it's offensive to me. who has the responsibility for testing the public, protecting the public.

    >> reporter: that falls to the local health department who do annual inspections of restaurants and will shut them down if they aren't fixed. follow-up reports show all the violations are fixed. the mall told us the safety of our customers is a top priority and any safety in fractions is a top priority to be corrected immediately.

    >> we see a pattern. vendors get a violation, fix it, a few months go by, maybe a year, get the same violation and fix it, it goes on and on.

    >> they do get away with it because the health inspectors are only there one or two times a year and see a snapshot, not there every minute of the day.

    >> reporter: with all these health violations, you may wonder why don't we see a lot of people getting sick? the cdc doesn't report it because they don't connect the illness with what they ate a few days ago, check for clean workspaces and hairnets and gloves. the only thing you can look for.

    >> what's this best way to crack down on these vendors.

    >> the health department doesn't have the money to go more than once a year. if they get a violation and fix it, they get a clean slate . they can go year after year and it's okay. once again, there's no more money for local health inspectors to go more often. i should say this is do-able, we found some with zero violations. it can happen.

    >>> appreciate it. 48 after the

TODAY
updated 11/18/2010 8:22:57 AM ET 2010-11-18T13:22:57

A trip to the mall food court is a favorite for families looking for a quick bite. But a TODAY investigation that aired Thursday revealed that many food courts have a disturbing pattern of health violations.

The three-month investigation went inside some of the most popular malls in the United States and uncovered critical violations that can make people sick. In one Boston mall, TODAY captured footage of a cockroach climbing the wall right next to the grill at a popular food-court restaurant.

Most critical violations aren’t as obvious: bare hands on food, unsafe food temperatures, raw meat sitting out for too long — and filthy kitchens.

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The investigation examined hundreds of inspection reports and included visits with food safety expert Cindy Rice to food courts at the Mall of America in Minnesota, Faneuil Hall in Boston and South Street Seaport in New York City.

Rice said food courts may be riskier than an average restaurant because of their tighter workspaces and higher volumes.

“They can start cutting corners if they’re not careful,” Rice said.

Unsafe food temperatures
Reports show that since 2009 at Boston’s Faneuil Hall, 43 percent of vendors had critical violations that can make diners sick. At the Mall of America, 68 percent had critical violations, and at the Seaport mall — a tourist hot spot — 84 percent of vendors had critical violations.

One of the most common violations: unsafe food temperatures. At many food courts, hot foods are kept too cold and cold foods are kept too hot — scenarios that can lead to dangerous bacteria growth. The investigation revealed instances of raw burgers sitting out for far too long and kebabs piled up too high and too far away from the heat.

Video: The dirty truth about food courts (on this page)

Rice offered a safety tip to hungry shoppers in a hurry.

“When you go up to a deli case that’s holding hot foods, ask for the one on the bottom layer,” she said. “That’s usually the hottest one in the pile.”

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Meats aren’t the only food items of concern. Cut produce kept too warm also can grow bacteria, and salads and fruit cups sitting out at room temperature can pose risks.

“Touch the outside of the deli case, see if it’s cold,” Rice advised.

Rodents and insects
The presence of pests such as rodents and insects represents another common food-court violation. The restaurant Megumi of Japan in Boston’s Faneuil Hall was cited for having mouse droppings in its storage area, according to inspection reports. It’s the same restaurant where TODAY saw a cockroach crawling next to the grill.

“If you see one cockroach during the day, chances are you have thousands of them in the walls and ceilings waiting to come out at night,” Rice said.

At the Seaport mall in New York, inspection reports show more than half the vendors have had pest violations since 2009. Such violations included mouse droppings behind the refrigerator and in the food-preparation area of a restaurant called the Charcoal Grill.

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Rice described such findings as a “big concern.”

“[Rodents and insects] all carry some bacteria in their bodies and will cross-contaminate surfaces and foods with salmonella, E. coli viruses,” she said.

But Rice said most cross-contamination at food courts comes from the workers themselves. The investigation found instances of ungloved workers wiping counters with filthy rags and then handling food. Cameras were rolling when one worker put eyedrops in her eyes and then handed out food samples.

“It’s a problem because she has bacteria and all of her mucuses and maybe viruses contaminating the toothpicks in the foods,” Rice said.

Risks are serious
Sometimes such cross-contamination can send unwitting customers to the hospital. Stan Pawlow, 14, ate Mexican food at a mall in Illinois. Days later, he was rushed to the emergency room with E. coli poisoning. His doctors said he could have died.

“It hurt so bad, and something was wrong,” Pawlow recalled.

Pawlow wound up being one of five customers who were likely sickened after eating meals prepared by the same food-court vendor, where workers may have accidentally mixed salsa with raw meat.

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“Do they know the consequences?” said Stan’s mother, Cindy Pawlow. “They’re taking people’s lives in their hands, children’s lives in their hands.”

That vendor has since gone out of business. But in the same food court, six out of seven restaurants have had critical health violations since last year.

“It’s offensive to me,” said Jeff Pawlow, Stan’s father. “Who’s got the responsibility of protecting the public?”

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That responsibility falls to local health departments, which conduct annual inspections of restaurants and shut them down if serious violations aren’t fixed. At the malls visited in the investigation, follow-up reports showed all violations were fixed. The malls told TODAY, “The safety of our customers is a priority,” and “Any infraction is required to be corrected immediately.”

But a close examination of inspection reports revealed a pattern: Vendors get violations and fix them — but in some cases, vendors got the same violations several months or a year later.

“They ... get away with it, because the health inspectors are only there one or two times a year and they see a snapshot,” Rice said. “They’re not there every minute of the day.”

With so many health violations, why aren’t there more reports of people getting sick? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said many people don’t report their illnesses — in part because they fail to connect them with the food-court meals they ate a few days earlier.

Rice said the best safety tip when you find yourself hungry in a food-court setting is to look for good hygiene in the workers: gloves, hairnets and clean workspaces.

To read statements from mall spokespersons in response to TODAY’s investigation, click here .

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