Nobody likes turbulence at 35,000 feet, but some level of risk is always present when you’re in the sky.  But not all risks while flying are beyond the reasonable control of those in charge of our safety.  A few weeks ago, Gary Stoller of the USA Today wrote a piece on airline food safety, focusing on the industry’s major carriers, including Gate Gourmet and LSG Sky Chefs:

USA TODAY requested inspection reports since January 2009 for the two biggest airline caterers, LSG Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet, and a third large caterer, Flying Food Group. Combined, the three companies have 91 kitchens preparing in-flight food for many big U.S. and foreign airlines at U.S. airports.

As of Friday, the FDA’s regional offices had sent reports for 46 facilities. At 27 of them, FDA inspectors noticed suspected food-preparation violations or objectionable practices. Among them:

•An FDA inspector spotted a mouse, rodent nesting materials and rodent feces under a pallet of food and in other areas at LSG Sky Chefs’ Minneapolis facility during a May 2009 inspection.

•The Dulles, Va., facility of Gate Gourmet, the second-largest caterer in the USA, failed to keep shrimp, filet mignon, Chilean sea bass, chicken and vegetables, and pastrami and cheese sandwiches at the proper temperature during an inspection in August. When an inspector mentioned the unsafe practice to company personnel, the shrimp and the pastrami and cheese sandwiches were not thrown in the garbage.

Employees with "unclean hands" were handling food. A lab report found a "high coliform count" in rice.

•At Gate Gourmet’s San Diego facility in November, the director of operations said the company would cook any food to an airline’s specification without regard to food safety guidelines, an FDA inspector wrote. He also wrote that a Gate Gourmet official said the company doesn’t verify if food is from approved sources or frozen for "parasite destruction." Raw meats aren’t cooked to adequate temperatures — a repeat violation that was also cited in 2008.

•A Los Angeles facility of Flying Food Group had a corroded and taped ice-machine door that failed to "hold ingredients in bulk or in suitable containers to protect against contamination," an inspector wrote in an April report

More on LSG Sky Chefs:

In December 2009, the FDA issued a warning letter to LSG Sky Chefs concerning its Denver catering facilty.  The letter began by withdrawing the facility’s "approved" status, and giving it a "provisional" designation.  The letter also informed LSG that its customers would be notified of the change in status (incidentally, i’ve probably flown through Denver 10 times since December and have never been informed, but then again, I don’t read the small print on my tickets). 

The change in status occurred because of the FDA’s findings in a 2009 investigation of the facility.  Among the list of horribles were the following violations:

• Cart wash area – Live and dead roach-like insects too numerous to count (TNTC)
• Silverware station – At least 40 live roaches as well as other insects
• The hot kitchen – At least eight dead and one live roach insects were observed in and around the walls of the hot kitchen
• Repack area – Live roaches (TNTC), as well as ants
• Pots and pans warewashing room – At least four live and dead roaches, flies
• Dish machine wash area – At least 13 dead roaches inside the machine loading area and 31 or more dead nearby the machine
• Wash area – At least four live roaches on walls and floors 

Listeria monocytogenes was also found in a floor drain at the LSG facility. 

Maybe they are comforted by the difficult epidemiological circumstances–i.e. the improbability of airline outbreaks being discovered–posed by people becoming infected and then traveling all over the country, or the world, thus frustrating public health surveillance efforts.  Whatever the case, the reports have not been good on the sanitation at airline catering facilities.  Airline food wasn’t very good to begin with, but the companies that provide it certianly need to clean up their acts, quite literally.