FDA Warns Airlines on Food Safety

From the WebMD Archives

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.


NetCompliance Inc. scours the Internet for government Web sites indicating compliance problems for business. The idea is to keep companies from running afoul with the feds.

Michael Volpe, vice president for corporate communications at NetCompliance says it's disappointing that the airlines weren't more careful. "I think the public is being protected. The point of the matter is you'd like to see the companies get down to a zero risk factor," Volpe tells WebMD.

FDA inspectors also have targeted Amtrak, Greyhound Bus Lines, Inc., and several airport facilities. Companies are given 30 days to correct their deficiencies or face further sanctions.

The head of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a watchdog nutrition group, says airline food is not a trivial matter. "The airlines have to be every bit as careful in selecting their food suppliers as they are in selecting their airplanes," Caroline Smith DeWaal tells WebMD.

For example, in 1993, 47 passengers aboard a flight from Charlotte, N.C., to Providence, R.I., suffered a bout of Escherichia coliinfectionfrom a contaminated salad prepared by an airline caterer.

However, passengers at Washington, D.C.'s Reagan National Airport seemed prepared to take airline food for better or for worse. "I rarely eat it. ... I don't care for the food. I don't know how long it's been sitting out. ... I bring my own food or I don't eat at all," passenger Dawn Fiffick tells WebMD.

"Never had a problem with spoiled food from an airline; been traveling now for about 30 years or so. ... I hope today doesn't begin my streak of bad luck," passenger Charles Fuller tells WebMD.

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