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, Minn., 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 representative 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 4,000 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 representative, "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.