Many people regard airline travel as nothing short of a headache.  The long lines, uncomfortable luggage, security procedures, and general confusion filling most airports are enough to work up an appetite in even the most veteran fliers.  The feeling of finally sinking into your seat after a hectic airport experience is one of unique relaxation.  It is at this point that many fliers suddenly become acutely aware of their ravenous appetites.  Usually pretzels are passed around shortly, but this is rarely enough to satisfy the hunger of a traveler.  Many fliers crave a full meal, and sometimes there is a packaged, heated meal ready to greet them.

airline-food-iphone.jpgAirline meals do not enjoy a reputation for excellence, and unfortunately taste is not all that this food appears to be lacking.  As reported in USA Today, most airline food also lacks adequate attention to food safety.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently released reports highlighting a number of serious food safety infractions at the three leading airline food supply kitchens.

The unsanitary and unsafe conditions at the Denver kitchen of LSG Sky Chefs included live roaches as well as roach carcasses “too numerous to count” dispersed throughout the facility. The employees have been seen handling food there with bare hands, and the facility tested positive for Listeria, a highly dangerous bacteria that can cause fatal infections in humans, in December.  LSG Sky Chefs provides over 405 million meals annually to over 300 airlines.

Gate Gourmet and the Flying Food Group, two additional catering companies, were also investigated by the FDA with unsatisfactory results. Out of 46 kitchens investigated, 27 of them reported safety violations. These included rodent feces in close contact with food as well as employees failing to wash hands before handling food.

At Gate Gourmet’s San Diego facility the director of operations claimed that the company would cook any food to an airline’s specification without regard to food safety guidelines. It was reported that a company official also stated that they do not verify the origins of their food or check to see if it has been frozen for “parasite destruction”.  Workers at the facility also repeatedly were discovered undercooking raw meat.

When the FDA finds serious safety violations in a kitchen, a warning letter is issued to the parent company.  LSG Sky Chefs alone has received 18 such letters in the past fourteen years.  Two years ago one of these warnings cited fear of Clostridium Botulinum which causes botulism, an extremely serious paralytic illness that doctors regard as a medical emergency. Gate Gourmet’s most recent letter was in response to an outbreak that involved 47 confirmed cases of Shigella from airline food on flights from Hawaii, with an additional 116 unconfirmed cases.

“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,” said Roy Costa, a public health consultant who volunteered to review the FDA reports obtained by USA Today.

These reports have prompted many to criticize the airline industry. However, in light of the economic downturn many airlines have cut back on in-flight catering or eliminated it all together. This decision may have unintended positive outcomes for airline passengers, encouraging people to bring food prepared in their own kitchen or buy safer snacks in the terminal before boarding.