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Aug. 3, 2001 (Washington) -- Many people already consider the phrase "airline food" an oxymoron. But now the FDA has added some unsavory information that may cause new safety concerns about in-flight meals.

During the past year, the agency has sent out warning letters to a number of major carriers about food handling issues as well as sewage leaking onto the runways.

A citation was sent to Northwest Airlines in May indicating that chicken filets were being kept at a temperature of about 62°, nearly 20° above the regulatory limit. The FDA also complained that a turkey sandwich on the same flight in San Francisco was also stored at an unsafe temperature.

"We take any concerns by the FDA very seriously, and we'll continue to work toward the best possible compliance," Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch tells WebMD. The airline serves an estimated 58,000 meals a day that are all prepared by catering services. Even though the problem represents a tiny fraction of that volume, Ebenhoch says Northwest is committed to full compliance with FDA rules.

LSG/Sky Chefs, Inc., the largest airline meal provider in the world, also has been told to make corrections. The FDA says that an inspection at the Sky Chef kitchen at Denver International Airport revealed that "employees were observed touching their mouths, foreheads, and noses then continuing to work without washing hands or changing gloves."

Sky Chef director of communications Bill Slay tells WebMD that even though the alleged violations are a tiny part of the caterer's one-million-meal-per-day output, changes will be made. "When we're cited in situations like that, our response is immediate," he tells WebMD. He insists that overall, the company, owned by Lufthansa, has an excellent safety record.

A review of FDA warning letters during this year vs. 1997 indicates that the number of complaints against airlines including Continental, Air Tran, American, and Delta has virtually doubled during the same seven-month period. Many of the complaints had to do with sewage getting on the tarmac.

Delta spokeswoman Peggy Estes said the problem for Delta was a "pinhole-sized" leak in a hose that was immediately replaced.

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