Tainted food – a sticky situation for airline travelers
July 17th, 2012
02:45 PM ET
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Travelers are on pins and needles after news that six instances of the latter had been discovered in turkey sandwiches on four separate Delta Air Lines flights from Amsterdam to the United States on Sunday. One injury was reported, and the FBI, along with Dutch authorities, have begun a criminal investigation into the origins of the implement. The airline is, for the time being, serving prepackaged foods on flights from the routes involved.

This is not the first time that airline food has come under scrutiny for hazards other than terminal dullness.

Shrimp served on a 1992 Aerolineas Argentinas Flight 386 from Argentina to Los Angeles hiked the number of travel-related cholera cases in the United States to an all-time high. Seventy five passengers (all but two of whom sat in the main economy cabin; first class dined on a separate menu) who consumed tainted seafood salad were sickened, and one elderly man died. The incident was linked to a cholera outbreak that began in Peru in 1991 and claimed the lives of 5000 people in Mexico and the Carribean.

A Florida man sued airline caterer Gate Gourmet, Inc. in April 2005, claiming that carrots served to him on an August 2004 flight from Honolulu, Hawaii to Minneapolis, Minnesota were contaminated with Shigella bacteria, causing him to develop a high fever and rack up $3,000 in medical expenses. He was one of 45 people on the flight, and several hundred total thought to be sickened by the carrots, but investigators were unable to determine where or how the carrots became contaminated. The claims were resolved in 2006, and multiple plaintiffs sought punitive damages.

The Food and Drug Administration issued a warning letter and "Provisional" status to Gate Gourmet in May 2005, after an inspection of its Honolulu facility turned up multiple instances of improperly refrigerated food, "trash carts with fruit flies and cockroaches in and near them," growing mold and a "pink slimy substance" dripping onto the conveyor at the clean end of the pot washing machine. The company was given 15 days to cure the problem, or be shut down. The company reportedly repaired faulty equipment, trained employees, cleaned extensively and replaced local management and passed a subsequent inspection.

Gate Gourmet Vice President Norbert van den Berg told USA Today in 2010 that his company's food-safety standards now are "superior to any restaurant" and that it "can guarantee the safest product out there."

In December 2009, the FDA issued a similar warning letter and notice to cure to LSG SkyChefs, the world’s largest provider of in-flight services. The agency changed the classification of their airline catering facility from "Approved" to "Provisional" after an inspection of their Denver facility revealed "live and dead roach-like insects too numerous to count," employees handling food with bare hands or with unwashed gloved hands, "standing pools of the brown fluid amongst trash debris" and the presence of listeria bacteria, among other sanitation concerns.

The facility regained its "Approved" status after re-inspection in January 2010, but was cited again later that year for unsanitary handling and refrigeration of their crabcakes and tuna sandwiches.

Bloomberg News reported in April 2011 that during an inspection of Atlanta-based Delta jets, U.S. health inspectors found rat droppings “too numerous to count” near galley areas where food and drink are stored. The inspector told Bloomberg that a jet provides ideal housing for vermin, due to the presence of readily available water, spilled snacks and crumbs. According to the report, poison is not a viable option for controlling a vermin infestation on a plane, due to the stench of the resultant corpse, and the potential need to dismantle parts of the aircraft to locate it. A spokesperson for Delta stated that it was believed to be an isolated incident, and the plane was cleaned and returned to service.

In June 2011, American Airlines temporarily stopped offering green salads and lettuce and tomato garnishes on flights departing from Europe in the wake of an E. coli outbreak that sickened over 4000 people in 10 countries, and killed more than four dozen people in Germany and France. This was a pre-emptive measure on the part of the airline, in order to alleviate anxiety from an already nervous flying public, and no other airlines followed suit.

Later that year, tragedy struck when Othon Cortes of Miami ate food allegedly contaminated with bacteria during an American Airlines flight from Barcelona, Spain, to New York. In December 2011, Cortes' family filed a $1 million lawsuit against the airline and catering company Sky Chefs, claiming that an in-flight meal that allegedly contained chicken was the source of the Clostridium perfringens bacteria that caused the man to succumb to a cardiac event during the second leg of his flight. American Airlines has declined to comment, and LSG Sky Chefs began the process to dismiss the case, saying via a spokesperson, "Based upon the allegations in the complaint it is not possible that Sky Chefs is the responsible party because we did not cater the Barcelona flight in question."

The International Flight Services Association, which represents airlines and catering facilities, revised its World Food Safety Guidelines for Airline Catering in 2010 in accordance with World Health Organization strategy for developing standards. The 87-page document addresses guidelines for food handling safety, hygiene, temperature control, washing, thawing and freezing, among other concerns, and specifically addresses precautions for avoiding foreign object contamination in airline meals.

FDA officials told USA Today in 2010 that the number of warning letters to airlines and airline catering companies has decreased significantly in recent years, mainly due to airlines' adoption of internal safety standards and the elimination of most fresh food from flights.

Read - Skip the pasta! And other unsavory truths about airplane food

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Filed under: Airlines • E. coli • Food Safety • Listeria • Salmonella • Tainted Food • Travel


soundoff (42 Responses)
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  2. Nikos

    I am with you SherwoodOR. Folks if you don't like it, don't eat it simple! Or bring your own as many here have mentioned. I don't think people realise how difficult it is to prepare, store, cook, and serve so many meals to people. Airlines are not restaurants! No matter which celebrity chef is behind the menu! Am sure even some top restaurants have had their fair share of food poisoning, or worse tampering with food?

    July 25, 2012 at 8:24 pm | Reply
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  4. food

    Due soaring air line fuel costs, most of the air lines are trying to cut cost to increase their profit margins. The out come is below the standards service, resulting worst meals you could ever imagine on an air line.

    July 19, 2012 at 11:31 am | Reply
  5. Ben Rein

    If you have the option, order a KOSHER MEAL. These are prepared by far higher standards.

    July 19, 2012 at 8:54 am | Reply
  6. hotfood

    Because of this...I only eat hot well cooked meals. No salads, no fruits.

    July 18, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Reply
  7. Katherine

    Airline food is good for a food fight and thats about it.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:57 am | Reply
    • Yeah yeah

      Your comment was good for an eyeroll...

      July 18, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Reply
  8. Failer

    You'd better tell the Captain we've got to land as soon as we can. This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.
    A hospital–what is it?
    It's a big building with patients, but that's not important right now.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:14 am | Reply
    • Homer

      What was it we had for dinner tonight?
      Well, we had a choice of steak or fish.
      Yes, yes, I remember. I had the lasagna.

      July 18, 2012 at 10:59 am | Reply
  9. gee

    The only reason a lot more people are NOT getting sick is LESS food is served. Go figure.

    July 18, 2012 at 7:49 am | Reply
    • ATOMIC LOBOTOMY

      I'm not so surprised about the needles. I'm surprised about the food, i.e. that they actually found food on an airplane. Last 30 flights I've been on, there was no food. I thought maybe TSA had banned food.

      July 18, 2012 at 8:01 am | Reply
  10. surya tyagi

    Sincerely hope Delta Airlines issue to be one time problem.

    July 18, 2012 at 6:34 am | Reply
  11. truthsayer

    Sorry my pc is slowly . And there is amistake that sounds like I want to attack ! LOL
    It is a seroius thing! I think it was a test made by terrorists ! Do you remenber the shoebomb attack in 2008 from amsterdam to detroit(DELTA FLIGHT)? Do u remember all tests of terrorist in the last years were easy to find out but somtimes no one had a clue but then checked the whole plan . I guess it was atest because the needles were found on 4-5 different Flights to most important delta hubs in the us from amsterdam . Okay if someone is clever he would just use needles in one flight to test if everything works well but the one wanted to try if everything works well on 4-5 flights and it is also his next step he will do ! To use needles in 4-5 flights on delta or united (the biggest airlines in the world) to important delta /UAL Hubs in the us! But why 4-5 flights? Cause there was 4-5 important countries who was involved in the iraq war in europe . It was the netherlands , spain , italy , the UK and Portugal etc. it fits! Olympicgames coming soon ! PERFECT TIMING TO HIT SUCH COUNTRIES WHO WAS INVOLVED IN THE IRAQ WAR . How He/they want to attack? Hurt all pssengers wit something in the air with something put on a sndwich /meal it could be toxic it could just really hurt or it could kill (no bomb) . Also the crew will get such needles and one of the cockpit crew! One in the cockpit it does not matter pilot or copilot won't get something .I guess the copilot won't get needles or somethin inside meal . One 4-5 several flights will be one man no one will identify him as terrorist cuase he also needs no bomb or shoebomb or gun or anything . He waits until all passengers and crew will be dead trough something inside meal and he waits until the pilot or copilot will be dead or hurted etc . then someone opens the cockpit door! That is why one in the cockpit needs to sty alive and gers no toxic meal etc . he will look if everything in nthe cabin is okay because the pilot or copilot is dead or hurted or somethin else... but in the cabin no one answers also not the crew because all passengers and crew members , sky marshalls are dead or hurted or etc. whatever so the pilot or copilot will then open the cockpit door to look what haoppened . the terrorist already stands behind the cockpit door and will go into the cockpit when the door opens . maybe he waits in the kitchen or toilet in front of the cockpit untilsomeone opens the cockpit door and then forces him to fly somewhere else or he takes control of the plane and will fly the planes to london , rom , lisbon , madrid etc. and he will fly the planes inside popular things .

    July 18, 2012 at 3:58 am | Reply
  12. truthsayer

    It is a seroius thing! I think it was a test made by terrorists ! Do you remenber the shoebomb attack by delta in 2008 from amsterdam to detroit? Do u remember all tests of terrorist in the last years were easy to find but somtimes no one had a clue but then checked the whole plan . I guess it was atest because the needles were found on 4-5 different Flights to most important delta hubs in the us from amsterdam . Okay if someone is clever he would just use needles in one flight to test if everything works well but the one wanted to try if everything works well on 4-5 flights and it is also his next step he will do ! To use needles in 4-5 flights on delta or united (the biggest airlines in the world) to important delta /UAL Hubs in the us! But why 4-5 flights? Cause there was 4-5 important countries who was involved in the iraq war in europe . It was the netherlands , spain , italy , the UK and Portugal etc. it fits! Olympicgames coming soon ! PERFECT TIMING TO HIT SUCH COUNTRIES WHO WAS INVOLVED IN THE IRAQ WAR . How we/they want to attack? Hurt all pssengers wit something in the air with something put on a sndwich /meal it could be toxic it could just really hurt or it could kill (no bomb) . Also the crew will get such needles and one of the cockpit crew! One in the cockpit it does not matter pilot or copilot won't get something .I guess the copilot won't get needles or somethin inside meal . One 4-5 several flights will be one man no one will identify him as terrorist cuase he also needs no bomb or shoebomb or gun or anything . He waits until all passengers and crew will be dead trough something inside meal and he waits until the pilot or copilot will be dead or hurted etc . then someone opens the cockpit door! That is why one in the cockpit needs to sty alive and gers no toxic meal etc . he will look if everything in nthe cabin is okay because the pilot or copilot is dead or hurted or somethin else... but in the cabin no one answers also not the crew because all passengers and crew members , sky marshalls are dead or hurted or etc. whatever so the pilot or copilot will then open the cockpit door to look what haoppened . the terrorist already stands behind the cockpit door and will go into the cockpit when the door opens . maybe he waits in the kitchen or toilet in front of the cockpit untilsomeone opens the cockpit door and then forces him to fly somewhere else or he takes control of the plane and will fly the planes to london , rom , lisbon , madrid etc. and he will fly the planes inside popular things .

    July 18, 2012 at 3:57 am | Reply
    • steve

      Dude,

      Paragraph much?

      July 18, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Reply
  13. oneeyejeff

    Never trust stewardess because they gave me food from the bottom shelf of the food cart ~ that's where vermin hanging around at the bottom of the food cart with rat droppings! They disliked me because I was an ugly one-eye tight-fisted hairy beast and deaf! I had severe bloody diarrhea and convulsion a few hours later, but I avoided going to the doctor because I cannot afford to pay unaffordable medical expenses due to corrupted corporation-ruled US government that never allows to provide a free medical care for the American people. That led the American people to bankrupt from unaffordable high medical bills!

    Stewardess are one of the true dangerous people on all airliners because they often spike dangerous drugs and other poisonous substances into passengers' beverages and/or foods while they served us on planes! We are wondering if those airliner stewardess was involved in a plot for putting deadly sewing needles into those sandwiches to kill innocent passengers?!

    July 18, 2012 at 1:25 am | Reply
    • Pewter...

      Very interesting response. Simple solution, you should not travel and subject those around you to your horridness!

      July 18, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Reply
  14. xfiler93

    apparently not that safe.

    July 17, 2012 at 9:55 pm | Reply
  15. Mark in Montana

    Lets see, my last meal on a plane consisted of a great sandwich and a Pepsi. Since it was a Delta flight, the fact that I was drinking Pepsi tells you I brought the meal onboard with me.

    As for my last meal provided by an airline, it was a small bag of peanuts and a Coke. Yep, lots of dangerous stuff there.

    July 17, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Reply
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants

      i is if you're allergic to peanuts.

      July 17, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Reply
      • The Witty One@Jdizz

        What website is that linking to?

        July 18, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Reply
        • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫ @ TWO

          It does that when I post from my iPhizzle.

          July 19, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  16. Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

    Taint isn't food.

    July 17, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Reply
    • The Smart Aleck

      Tossed salad is.

      July 18, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Reply
  17. SherwoodOR

    The fact that the last decade's worth of incidents can be summarized in less than 1000 words (946, to be exact, for this article) is clear evidence that contamination of airline food is very, very rare and that airline food is, overall, very safe.

    July 17, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Reply
    • Jetboyds

      Exactly. Thousands of meals/ready packs prepared daily, millions per year, and 5 incidents.

      July 18, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Reply

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