Don’t poison the passenger

posted on 11th June 2018

Business aviation may have fallen behind the commercial airline sector in terms of serving food safely on board

One of the scheduled speakers at the Business Airport World Expo in February was taken seriously ill on his way from New York to Cannes, and was admitted to hospital on arrival suffering from suspected food poisoning. It was an unfortunate incident that played into the hands of a fellow speaker at the event, Paula Kraft, whose theme was the need to improve catering safety management at FBOs and on board the aircraft.

One in six Americans has suffered from foodborne illness at some time in their life, Kraft says. In developing nations where food handlers are less likely to have received professional training and food sources are less well documented, that figures rises to one in three.

Airline catering can be a particular problem area, because of the long periods of time over which food is stored in less than ideal conditions. However, Kraft points out that commercial airlines have raised their game over the years, with many eliminating perceived high-risk foodstuffs such as bean sprouts – a perfect environment for bacterial growth – from their onboard meals.

Business aviation in some respects falls short, Kraft says. Yet its primary clientele includes those at highest risk from foodborne illness or allergic reactions: older passengers, with specific dietary needs or immune disorders, or perhaps on medication for heart problems or high cholesterol levels.

“We’re flying the most powerful people in the world but we’re not taking the precautions commercial airlines are taking with the general public,” she controversially claims. “Cases are seldom reported because no one wants to violate the privacy of the client. So you just drop the supplier and move on.”

Kraft launched one of the most respected catering operations in the US, Tastefully Yours, more than 30 years ago, before going on to set up Aviation Catering Consultants with a view to implementing more rigorous safety management systems.

“Catering is hidden under the mat. It’s thrown in at the end of the flight attendant’s other duties,” she says. “I had seen the issues every day. I felt I needed to devise training in the hope of providing the flight crew, the FBO and handler, even schedulers and dispatchers with job-specific awareness.”

Galleys are extremely small environments, often designed with no consideration of safe food handling, and preparation is generally left to a crew member without adequate food safety training.

Even before the catering is delivered to the aircraft, it may have passed through an FBO with poor procedures for receiving and storing it, Kraft warns. Food that is inappropriately handled can kill, whether via salmonella, botulism, E. coli or parasites.

She charts a number of foodstuffs that can give rise to problems if not correctly handled, including animal products (meats, poultry and seafood); dairy products; raw or heat-treated foods such as rice or cooked vegetables; raw seed sprouts; cut melons; garlic or oil mixtures; and unpasteurised fruit juices. Unfortunately, this lengthy list comprises “90% of what we serve,” she says.

There are four main reasons why these items can become unsafe, and all four are present in general aviation.

  1. Time and temperature. The flow of food from the catering source to the end customer can be a long one. Typically, food must be reheated to 165degF (74degC). Has the FBO or handler done this, or did the delivery company keep hot food at that temperature throughout?

Food that is not adequately refrigerated, and may then be reheated once or twice, can become a problem in as little as four hours. When you factor in how long it was worked on in the kitchen and the time it spent in delivery to the FBO, there may be a safe window of only 30 minutes once the aircraft is airborne.

“If you’re not serving immediately after you have completed your climb, pathogens can start to multiply,” Kraft says. Serving seafood towards the end of an eight-hour transatlantic flight may not be such a good idea. Compounding the problem, company personnel may eat food afterwards that the client didn’t consume.

  1. Poor personal hygiene. Is the person who cleaned the lavatory taking your catering out to the plane or putting food on top of the lav cart? Kraft says she’s seen it happen.
  2. Food safety principles. Food is touched with bare hands. Hand washing must be carried out properly. Personnel should be aware that even if they wear disposable gloves and don’t change them often enough, or use tongs, cross-contamination can occur. Kraft recommends that operators should not refreeze water and equipment should be sanitised after each flight. However, three-compartment wash, rinse and sanitise sinks are often not provided, and many dishwashers do not operate at a high enough temperature.
  3. Cross-contamination. There are many issues, in addition to those outlined above. For example, cloth towels can be a breeding ground for bacteria. In one test, more bacteria were discovered on a galley counter than on a lavatory seat.

Even trained personnel can miss some aspects as they prepare an enticing plate of food for that high net worth passenger, Kraft concludes. A knife that cuts into a melon skin will pull bacteria from the surface into the cut fruit, while one of aviation’s unique characteristics, repeated hot/cold cycles on the ramp, can affect products that are not replaced for each flight. Botulism can develop in condiments, even when they are in sealed packaging.

Prawn and mayo before landing, anyone?