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Eyes in the Sky on Food Contractors

November 08, 1998|KATHLEEN DOHENY

By now, most Angelenos are accustomed to the "report cards" in restaurants, markets, bakeries and bars that display the results of the most recent sanitation inspections by the County of Los Angeles Department of Health Services.

Ever since January, establishments in cities that adopted the county ordinance must post the inspection grades (or the actual score if the grade is below a C). This helps consumers decide which establishments meet their personal standards.

But who's watching food safety aloft on the 1,000 or so planes that depart each day from Los Angeles International Airport?

Who are the food police of the sky? And how do they monitor the safety of meals being served to tens of thousands of people whose only choice is Entree A, Entree B or going hungry?

The job here falls to two government agencies: the county health department and the federal Food and Drug Administration.

"We have the responsibility for inspecting manufacturing sites where food is put together," such as airline catering firms, said Arthur Tilzer, environmental health specialist at the county Department of Health Services.

The 11 sites he is talking about--they include firms such as Dobbs International and LSG Sky Chefs--prepare huge quantities of food daily. It's not unusual, said the manager of one site, to assemble 10,000 meals a day. Much of the work, he added, involves putting together ingredients shipped in from elsewhere, not preparation of meals from scratch.

The county inspectors try to get to each facility three times a year, Tilzer said. On these unannounced visits, they look at such factors as employees' personal hygiene--for instance, hand-washing--food temperature and storage, the presence of rodents and insects, the water supply's purity, equipment maintenance and the condition of the site's toilets and lavatories.

A passing score is 70 out of a possible 100.

Whether a facility that earned a score of less than 70 would be closed, Tilzer said, depends on the circumstances and what the chief problem is. "If there were vermin and everything else scored well, that would be an immediate 48-hour closure," he said.

But in his 20 years on the job, Tilzer said, he can't recall a single closure locally of a facility that provides airline food.

In fact, he said, many facilities score in the high 90s and some hit 100. On the latest round of reports, for instance, Dobbs was given a 99 at one facility, 98 at another, he said, and Ogden Aviation Services (LSG Sky Chefs) had a 94.

The role of the FDA, through its interstate travel program, overlaps somewhat with that of the county. All food safety concerns that apply to passenger travel on interstate carriers are covered under the U.S. Public Health Service Act, which the FDA enforces. But the FDA has no authority over food served on flights that originate outside the U.S.

Firms in the U.S. contracted by airlines to provide food must be inspected by the FDA and approved. "We try to inspect the food contractors once a year" when interstate food service is involved, said an FDA spokeswoman.

If a problem is found, the company is given a provisional approval for 30 days. If the problem is not corrected by then, the company is moved off the FDA approved list. If the problem could cause a food-borne illness, the facility is closed down immediately.

The FDA looks at the health and cleanliness of the food handlers to prevent food-related outbreaks. A decade ago, 21 members of the Minnesota Vikings football team became ill with cramps, fever, chills and diarrhea on a flight. FDA and other officials later traced the illness to food handlers who had a bacterial infection and passed it on through the submarine sandwiches they prepared that were served to the football players.

The FDA also watches airplanes as they are being built and periodically checks planes to be sure refrigeration and other food-service equipment is properly maintained.

The FDA's responsibility extends to water sources, such as water tanks on the airport premises, that provide water for consumption on the planes.

How often do inspectors actually show up? One manager of a food manufacturing site said that county inspectors usually appear every 30 to 60 days, while the FDA comes around about twice a year.

A look through inspection reports done in the Southern California-Arizona district over the last four years showed "no problems that would endanger public health," the FDA spokeswoman said.

Consumers with complaints about food safety problems aloft can call the county environmental health hotline, (888) 700-9995, or the FDA district office in Irvine, (949) 798-7600.

The Healthy Traveler appears on the second and fourth Sundays of the month.

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