In the past few years, there has been a sharp increase in the complaints of foodborne illness contracted by people who fly the friendly skies.
It makes Detective Foodsafe® wonder if the skies are still friendly for flying — and what precautions vacationers should be taking when they patronize airport eateries and in-flight meal services.
The companies that provide food for flights are responsible for the same standards of food safety that your local restaurant would be required to meet and are subject to health inspections to ensure they are in compliance with the prevailing food code.
Travelers place their trust in the airlines and airports to provide food that is safe to eat.
Detective Foodsafe is on the case to learn what travelers should know to protect themselves and to educate you.
Was It In the Water?
An airport water fountain has been suspected of spreading microbial pathogens that made travelers ill in Cleveland Hopkins International Airport after several people became sick on a Frontier Airlines flight en route from Cleveland to Tampa recently.
All water fountains in the specific concourse were shut down and water sent for testing through the Department of Health in Cleveland.
Officials are also interviewing those affected to determine if they ate foods from a location in the airport or somewhere locally, which may also be the source of the foodborne illness.
We can’t see germs on the water fountains making it difficult for travelers to know where it is safe to take a sip or fill your personal water bottle.
Was It From the Caterer?
In the past two years, as many as three major airports, four airlines and a catering company turned out to be major violators.
Food preparation facilities or catering kitchens operated by several catering companies across the country that service airlines and other customers seem to be culprits.
After inspections, violations included Listeria on surfaces, pest infestation, dirt and debris built up on equipment without adequate cleaning or maintenance schedules, and standing water. Food that was held in these facilities were determined to be adulterated since they were in unsanitary conditions.
Was It On the Plane?
A Newark Liberty Airport United Airlines’ kitchen cooler was found by the airline to contain Listeria. They report that the pathogen was contained and surfaces sanitized. The cooler was in an onsite facility. The airline stated that no one was reported to have become ill in this incident.
Listeria can take a long time, up to 70 days, before any symptoms of illness appear, so it isn’t always traced back to the source. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that there are 1,600 new cases of Listeriosis a year.
Equipment that carries the food and snacks on and off the plane between each flight can also be a source of contamination. One inspector’s report stated that “food soil and filth was observed on legs and shelves to portable food transport carts and caster on moveable equipment.”
Most travelers question just how a small, sometimes one person, cleaning crew can adequately clean surfaces such as tray tables, armrests, seats, bathrooms, and, especially, kitchens between flights.
If you are a frequent airline traveler, you know they sometimes have only a few minutes between arrivals and departures to take out trash and restock kitchens, much less sanitize any surfaces. The airlines are graded on their ‘on time’ schedule more than their cleanliness, it seems.
Detective Foodsafe hopes that cleaning is a higher priority as well as sanitizing equipment that is moved on and off planes carrying food.
Was It From the Kiosk, Lounge or Restaurant?
If you are fortunate enough to have a lounge at your disposal in the airport, you know they serve a buffet of foods to passengers. As with any buffet, there are risks associated with eating the food they serve.
Time/temperature abuse is often a problem. How long has the food been sitting out? Was it kept at the proper temperature while it sat?
Cross contamination of utensils or by the other people helping themselves is another concern. Who came before you and what did they do – sneeze, cough, touch it, put it back, or use one spoon for everything?
You never know what happened to the food before you served yourself.
Wherever you choose to eat before you get on the plane, it is important to feel comfortable that the staff are practicing food safety. Are their uniforms clean, do they clean dirty surfaces, is their hair in the food, and does the facility appear clean?
If you can see a posted food inspection report, read it.
Detective Foodsafe’s Tips to Protect Yourself
Reminders about what you can do to prevent foodborne illness when traveling may help you keep your family safe on your next vacation.
Detective Foodsafe recommends you:
- Wash your hands frequently, including prior to eating meals and snacks
- Avoid touching surfaces that hundreds (or thousands) of others touch, whenever possible
- Carry antibacterial hand wipes with you in your carry-on bag so you can clean your hands when you aren’t near a sink
- Be aware of the food you eat while traveling and avoid any high-risk foods, such as uncooked seafood
- Don’t eat food that isn’t served at the correct temperature (hot food hot and cold food cold)
- Drink bottled water; if traveling abroad bring water sanitizer tablets or a personal water filter
- Bring along your own food and snacks to use when food is suspicious to tide you over until you can get food you trust
Avoiding food poisoning when you are supposed to be enjoying yourself doesn’t change when you fly.
Taking necessary precautions, be wary of the food prepared for you by others and washing your hands frequently are steps Detective Foodsafe knows you can do.
As always, she is on the case for you and your family!