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Be glad airlines are serving fewer meals

Analysis of FDA inspections finds mice, roaches and other unsanitary conditions at companies that prepare meals for airlines.

By Teresa Mears Jun 28, 2010 1:16PM

It may turn out to be good news that we're getting fewer meals on airplanes.

A USA Today analysis of Food and Drug Administration inspection reports at facilities that prepare in-flight meals found "unsafe and unsanitary" conditions that could lead to food-borne illnesses, Gary Stoller reported.


He asked Roy Costa, a consultant and public health sanitarian and former Florida food inspector, to review the FDA inspection reports. His conclusion?

In spite of best efforts by the FDA and industry, the situation with in-flight catered foods is disturbing, getting worse and now poses a real risk of illness and injury to tens of thousands of airline passengers on a daily basis.

The inspection reports covered U.S. locations of LSG Sky Chefs, Gate Gourmet and Flying Food Group. Together, the three companies' 91 U.S. facilities prepare meals for most major airlines, including Delta, American, United, US Airways and Continental.


Representatives of the three companies said they take steps to ensure food safety, and representatives of the airlines said they require inspection reports and also conduct their own inspections. LSG Sky Chefs spokeswoman Beth Van Duyne said the company put into place a "global quality and safety system" in 2002, and has served more than 3 billion meals since then without any illnesses reported.  

"There has never been a report of a food-borne illness outbreak related to our facilities," she told USA Today.


According to the newspaper, FDA inspections in 2009 and 2010 found these problems:

  • Live roaches and roach carcasses "too numerous to count" were reported at the Denver facility of LSG Sky Chefs in September and October 2009. Inspectors also found ants, flies, debris and employees handling food with bare hands. Samples from a kitchen floor tested positive for the bacteria listeria. Here is the FDA's letter to LSG and here is LSG's response.
  • A mouse, rodent-nesting materials and rodent feces were seen near food pallets at LSG Sky Chefs' Minneapolis facility in May 2009.
  • Shrimp, filet mignon, Chilean sea bass, chicken and vegetables, and pastrami and cheese sandwiches were not kept at the proper temperature at the Dulles, Va., Gate Gourmet location in August 2009. An inspector mentioned the problem, but the food was not discarded. In addition, the FDA inspector found employees with "unclean hands" handling food and found a "high coliform count" in rice.
  • Raw meat was not cooked to adequate temperatures at Gate Gourmet's San Diego facility in November 2009. The same violation was reported in 2008.

After the Denver inspection, LSG fired the facility's chef and general manager and replaced the pipes and drains where the listeria had been found, Food Safety News reported. The company passed a reinspection in January.

If you think you'll be better off eating at the airport before the plane takes off, think again. USA Today examined local health department inspection reports for 10 airports last year and also found problems, especially with grab-and-go coolers, which don't always keep sandwiches and salads cold enough to guard against pathogens.


"The grab-and-go sandwich problem, it's a constant battle," David Jefferson, of the Tarrant County, Texas, health department, which covers the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, told USA Today's Alison Young.


Pass the packaged pretzels. They haven't been recalled, have they?


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