Airline Food Safety Questioned

June 28/USA TODAY -- Six months ago, Food and Drug Administration inspectors say they found live roaches and dead roach carcasses "too numerous to count" inside the Denver facility of the world's largest airline caterer, LSG Sky Chefs.

They also reported finding ants, flies and debris, and employees handling food with bare hands. Samples from a kitchen floor tested positive for Listeria, a bacteria that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems. It is also dangerous to pregnant women.

LSG Sky Chefs, which annually provides 405 million meals worldwide for more than 300 airlines, says conditions at the Denver plant did not meet company standards. It took immediate measures to remedy the problems, says spokeswoman Beth Van Duyne.

The Denver facility is one of many catering operations that provide food to airlines where FDA inspectors saw unsanitary and unsafe conditions in the last two years, according to inspection reports obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by USA TODAY.

The reports show "caterers for many of the nation's air carriers are contaminating foods in a number of ways," says Roy Costa, a consultant and public health sanitarian who voluntarily agreed to review the reports.

Frequent flier Arthur Debowy, an architect from Highland Mills, N.Y., says the findings are "sickening," and he will be more careful on future flights if food does not smell or taste right.

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 U.S., 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 does not verify if food is from approved sources or frozen for "parasite destruction." Raw meats are not 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.

Making Improvements
After the Los Angeles, San Diego, Dulles and Minneapolis inspections, Flying Food Group, Gate Gourmet and LSG Sky Chefs were issued a document called Form 483 by FDA inspectors. The form is only issued, the FDA says, when there are "significant" suspected violations of regulations or objectionable practices.

In the inspection reports, several LSG Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet facilities received Form 483s on two or three consecutive inspections. Repeat violations were noted at some facilities.

When serious violations occur -- such as those at LSG Sky Chef's roach-infested Denver facility -- the FDA may issue a warning letter. A company has 15 days to address the problems.

Sky Chefs facilities have received 18 warning letters since 1996, according to a USA TODAY analysis of the agency's online database. Three were received after German airline Lufthansa acquired controlling interest in the company in June 2001, and the company has taken many steps since then to ensure food safety, spokeswoman Van Duyne says.

Besides the warning letter sent in December, the company's Denver facility received one in May 2001 for a number of deficiencies.

Two years ago, LSG Sky Chef's facility in East Granby, Conn., was issued a warning letter because tilapia filets and shrimp meals were "prepared, packed or held under insanitary conditions" that may be "injurious to health." There was concern about botulism, caused by toxins that are among the most poisonous to humans.

Sky Chefs implemented a global quality and safety system "harmonizing food safety at all its kitchens" in 2002, says Van Duyne. Since then, the company has served more than 3 billion meals, and "there has never been a report of a food-borne illness outbreak related to our facilities," she says.

Gate Gourmet's most recent warning letter was issued in April 2005 to its Honolulu facility. Among other violations, FDA inspectors found cockroaches and fruit flies, food stored at improper temperatures, mold in a refrigerator and "a pink, slimy substance" dripping onto a conveyor for a pot-washing machine.

Eight months earlier, 47 passengers became ill -- and 116 other passengers probably became ill -- after eating food on 12 flights from Hawaii catered by Gate Gourmet, according to the Hawaii State Department of Health. The likely cause was raw carrots, says agency spokeswoman Janice Okubo.

Gate Gourmet vice president Norbert van den Berg says the company has an excellent system to ensure safe food, including temperature-controlled facilities and use of an independent auditor. His company's food-safety standards are superior to any restaurant, he says. "We can guarantee the safest product out there," van den Berg says.

Flying Food Group received a warning letter for 11 deficiencies -- including inadequately protecting food from contamination -- at a Jamaica, N.Y., facility in 2000. The company has since moved to a "state-of-the-art" facility at nearby JFK airport, says Glenn Caulkins, vice president of quality assurance.

Caulkins says Flying Food Group has invested a lot of money to ensure that its facilities prepare and process food safely. The company quickly addresses or corrects any concerns in FDA inspection reports, he says.

After the April inspection at the Los Angeles facility noted concerns about the ice machine, the company installed a new one, he says.

Fewer Meals, Fewer Problems
FDA officials say the number of warning letters issued to airline caterers has declined in recent years.

Cost-cutting airlines are serving fewer fresh meals. Some have eliminated meals. And airline caterers have incorporated government food-safety guidelines into their own guidelines, says FDA spokesman Ira Allen.

"With less ready-to-eat fresh food offered in coach class and substitution with prepackaged, shelf-stable foods, the opportunity for poor preparation, storing foods at improper temperatures and food-handling violations is much lower," Allen says.

Mary Ann Dowd of the International Flight Services Association, which represents airlines and caterers, says the inspectors' findings are a concern because the trade group works hard to promote food safety. The group will soon distribute a new edition of food-safety guidelines for caterers and airlines.

Despite fewer warning letters, inspection reports show that caterers are ignoring the guidelines and FDA requirements on fresh food they are preparing, says Costa, the public health consultant.

"The airlines, which have the primary liability for the safety of their passengers, have a serious supplier control problem," he says.

Airlines say they require their caterers to provide government inspection reports, and they do their own unannounced inspections.

From the July 6, 2010, Prepared Foods E-dition