Catering Safety: The Care and Feeding of Passengers

 - June 7, 2014, 1:45 AM

Foodborne illness is a growing concern in the U.S., and one that flight departments and FBOs should take seriously. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are approximately 48 million cases each year in the U.S., 128,000 of them severe enough to require hospitalization, 3,000 of them fatal. Travel medical services provider MedAire notes that gastrointestinal illness accounts for the largest percentage of calls from its private aviation customers, with 77 percent of them regarding passengers. Those are just the calls they hear about, and the overall impact on general aviation may be even greater as many cases go unreported.

“Flight departments just don’t talk about things when they have a problem,” according to Jean Dible, founder and principal of Georgia-based GA Food Safety Professionals. “I don’t care if it’s the passengers or the crewmembers; they just don’t go out and talk about it to other flight departments.” Dible, who has more than three decades in the food safety business, launched her company seven years ago, concentrating on business aviation and providing instruction on proper food handling to flight crews and FBO employees. It has since morphed from live two-day classes to an online course presented in 60 languages. “Holding food incorrectly in aircraft or any place on the ground, in any restaurant, is the biggest reason for foodborne outbreaks in this country and probably worldwide,” she told AIN.

Food Safety Rules

For FBOs, flight-department schedulers and dispatchers, choosing a highly regarded company to provide catering is just the start for protecting the health of passengers and crew, and education can go a long way toward lessening the chance of illness. Since the catering industry is not a direct distributor to end consumers (as in restaurants), it receives much less regulatory oversight than other food services and those companies generally rely on their reputations and word of mouth. Dible suggests that the ideal situation is for customers to visit catering providers and observe their sanitary conditions firsthand, but she concedes that is not always feasible. At the least, those ordering the catering should ask for references whenever possible.

Cold food must be kept below 41 degrees F and hot food must be kept at 135 degrees F or above, explained Dible. “Anywhere in between is when it can start to grow bacteria and produce toxins,” she added, noting that bacteria populations in food can double every 20 minutes. Knowing how food was stored and, more important, when it is no longer safe to serve is crucial. Under new criteria established last year by the Food and Drug Administration, most prepared foods–such as those a caterer would provide–now carry the designation TCS (time control for safety) as opposed to potentially dangerous.

Most foods can cause problems if handled improperly. “The only way you can control a dangerous food is by the clock and by the temperature,” said Dible. Under the current regulations, at an ambient temperature of less than 70 degrees F, cold food can be served for up to six hours before it must be disposed of, but only if the flight crew knows what time it came out of the refrigerator. “It all goes back to temperature control,” noted Dible. “If they purchase food from a catering company or even from a restaurant, they must know exactly what time that food came out of temperature control, because that is when the clock starts to tick.” As the growth of bacteria is cumulative, the six-hour period includes time spent on a countertop waiting to be picked up, in transit to the airport (if not under refrigeration), being transported to the airplane and kept on board. She suggests that those who order catering adopt the habit of requesting that caterers put the time of when the food was initially removed from temperature control on the food packaging.

If the food was held at a temperature above 70 degrees at any point, it must be disposed of after only four hours. Hot food, regardless of the ambient temperature, must be disposed of after four hours. Those guidelines are still not a guarantee of safety, according to Dible, who noted they are calculated on the food receiving adequate conditions during its handling. “It’s guidance, but it’s not foolproof,” she added.

Such food safety education should include pilots as well for times when there is no flight attendant. “The biggest problem in general aviation is where there is just a pilot with no temperature control device, hot or cold, aboard the airplane,” said Dible. “They bring the food on board and strap it to a seat and off they go, and the passengers eat when they are hungry. That is happening daily.”

One point Dible stressed is that all uneaten food should be disposed of at the end of the mission, rather than given to the crew or line service workers, unless it remained frozen solid during the entire trip, as the flight department could be liable if someone becomes ill.

There are better and worse choices for the types of food selected for a flight, and even seemingly benign choices like salad greens, cut tomatoes or cut melon must be held below 40 degrees to limit the growth of bacteria before consumption.

Among the most dangerous selections for a long-distance flight are sushi in particular and seafood in general because of the added potential risk of marine toxins in the food. Shellfish is high on the list of culprits in causing illness. If customers request such fare, Dible recommends steering the choices to virtually anything else. While most foodborne illness can take hours or even days to show effects, food poisoning from tainted seafood can strike within 30 minutes. o