TODAY   |  November 18, 2010

The dirty truth about food courts

From roaches and mouse droppings to bacteria and decay, NBC’s Jeff Rossen and his hidden-camera investigation expose grotesque filth at food courts across the country.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> 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