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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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?”
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.