The temperature, not the taste, of your in-flight food is very much a concern for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which checks the airlines regularly to see that your airborne meals are prepared and maintained at proper temperatures before being served.
Under the Public Health Service Act, the FDA has responsibility for the safety of food served in air and land conveyances engaged in interstate traffic. This authority extends to flights departing from the United States and includes the kitchens of caterers serving the airlines. The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta is responsible for U.S.-bound foreign airlines as well as cruise lines.
The FDA stepped up surveillance of airports across the country after a check of aircraft of 25 airlines in the Newark, La Guardia and Kennedy airports in 1984 revealed that of the 142 aircraft with food on board, 28 had items stored at improper or uncontrolled temperatures. The inspectors also found planes that hadn't been properly cleaned between flights.
Since that time, an FDA spokesman in Washington said: "The response from the airlines has been satisfactory and in compliance with our requirements."
Tremendous Volume Handled
Airlines, of course, serve a tremendous volume of meals (more than 150 million annually, according to one estimate). All of this food is prepared and preserved on land until transferred to planes, and then stored until served during flights. And some food must be heated before being served.
The danger zone for bacterial growth ranges from 45 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the FDA.
A factor that can contribute to problems is airline traffic congestion which causes flight delays, when meals--as well as passengers--must wait around for their flight. The longer the delay, the more opportunity for bacteria to grow on food not properly handled for that duration.
The practice of double-meal boarding--which is when food for long flights, or for both outbound and return flights, is stored simultaneously--can also create a temperature problem. Again, the longer that meals are stored, the greater the chance for problems to arise through improper temperature controls.
Complicating the situation is that the airlines, under deregulation, schedule more flights in certain hours of the day such as early morning and late afternoon. Similarly, the presence of fewer air traffic controllers can contribute to delays.
Use of Hub Airports
Another factor is the use of hub airports, which means more flights in and out of these stations.
To insure proper temperature controls, the FDA has been working with the In-Flight Food Services Assn., an organization of caterers serving the airlines, to educate airline and catering firm personnel on how to avoid such problems.
"To achieve absolutely safe food, we've spent a lot of time and money, with the help of the FDA and food scientists from Cornell University, to develop a comprehensive training program which covers all aspects of food preparation and transportation," said Dr. Gerald Lattin, executive director of the catering association. "This program is helping to maintain standards even higher than the FDA requirements."
Catering firms also have their own internal check systems. For example, Pat Glowe, staff vice president of marketing, Marriott Flight Division said: "We have quality control people in all our kitchens whose primary responsibilities are to ensure that safety and sanitation regulations are closely adhered to. In addition to the FDA inspections and airline inspections, we have corporate specialists in quality control who travel on a systemwide basis."
Bill Adams, vice president of Skychefs, said: "We use the new IFFSA training program to orient all of our people to the FDA requirements. Then we have daily on-the-job training conducted by supervisors. All major caterers like us are visited frequently by the FDA. The larger the caterer, the more frequent the visits."
Ross Skiver, interstate travel sanitarian with the FDA in Los Angeles, said: "At LAX we inspect flight kitchens at least twice a year, and the aircraft themselves are spot-checked."
At the kitchens, Skiver added: "We check how the raw products are labeled and stored prior to final preparation, the temperature of refrigerators used for foods supposed to be under refrigeration, cooking and dishwashing procedures, and overall sanitation."
Transfer vehicles are also checked (foods are transported in special carts with temperature controls, such as dry ice). "The transfer period, since the kitchens are in the airport area, is relatively brief and there should only be a slight change or loss of temperature," he said.