Traveling has always come with complications. Our By The Way Concierge column will take your travel dilemmas to the experts to help you navigate the new normal. Want to see your question answered? Submit it here.
I have gotten food poisoning on three long-haul flights. Should I be skeptical of the safety of in-flight meals? Are there foods to avoid? — Anonymous
This has never happened to me, and I figured it would be tricky to know exactly where you got food poisoning during a travel day. It can take food poisoning 30 minutes or many hours to show symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So I reached out to airlines, health experts and Patrick Quade, who runs iwaspoisoned.com, a website where people can report suspicions of food poisoning. I wanted to know: Is airplane food riskier than dining out?
Quade sent over a 17-page report of food poisoning claims submitted in 2022, plus information on airline lounges failing health inspections. There were some convincing claims from passengers that they did indeed get sick from an airline or airport lounge.
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Like the traveler who reported going from Dallas to New Zealand in November who knew “for a fact” it was airline food that put her in the urgent care after landing in Auckland “because I didn’t eat anything but the airline food for the 19 hours I was traveling.” Or the one who told Quade’s site they became “violently ill” flying from Atlanta to Las Vegas in May after only eating at the airport lounge and on the plane that day.
“It’s not actually surprising,” Aakash Aggarwal, a gastroenterologist with Gastroenterology Associates of New Jersey, told me. “Food poisoning, especially after traveling, is something that we pretty commonly see and treat.”
A spokesperson for Gategroup, the world’s largest airline catering company, disagreed.
“It is exceedingly unlikely for anyone to become ill from consuming a meal served on a flight, especially given the rigorous food safety standards and process controls Gategroup adheres to,” the spokesperson said in an email.
They added that Gategroup chefs and all staff involved in food preparation undergo food safety training. Gategroup makes millions of meals a year for passengers and crew, and follow food safety and quality standards that “meet or exceed recognized industry and government standards.” On top of that, they undergo “multiple inspections by our chefs, company experts, independent food safety consultants and governmental agencies, such as USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] and USFDA [the Food and Drug Administration].”
I’ve toured two airline catering facilities, including a Gategroup outpost in Virginia, and it appeared to be a very sanitized process. Workers who prepared the food were wearing gloves, hairnets and lab coats. Food is cooked and then blast-chilled to bring its temperature brought down for safety reasons.
After food is prepared, Aggarwal notes it has to go through multiple stages of handling before it gets to your tray table. “Even a minor slip-up can sort of spoil the end product,” he said, and “it’s hard to pinpoint where the fault happened.”
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Airplane food — just like food on the ground — can become contaminated in several ways, from exposure to dirty water to incorrect handling or cooking, among others. It might not be heated up properly or may sit out too long. “The chances of something going wrong are multifold,” Aggarwal said.
While food poisoning on planes “absolutely happens,” said Anthony Harris, chief executive and medical director of the occupational medicine practice HFit Health, “it’s not a terribly common issue.”
My takeaway from our conversations: You’re not any more likely to get food poisoning on a flight than anywhere else.
I didn’t get helpful information from the CDC (they don’t have data on food poisoning because it’s not included in the Nationally Notifiable Disease List) or airlines. Hannah Walden, spokesperson for Airlines for America trade group, said U.S. airlines always prioritize the safety and well-being of passengers, including the quality of food served in-flight.
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Despite what they know, both doctors I spoke to still eat airplane food, with a few conditions. Aggarwal’s rule of thumb: Don’t eat anything cold. (Fruit that you can peel is an exception.) You have a higher chance of killing harmful bacteria in food or drinks if you heat them up properly. Aggarwal will drink coffee and tea but never gets ice on planes — another source for contamination. “That water may not be clean enough,” he said.
A spokesperson from the global risk management firm, Crisis24, said their team also recommends consuming only sterilized or bottled water and sealed beverages without ice. And Harris says to follow his mom’s wisdom: If it doesn’t smell or look right, don’t eat it.
If you think you have food poisoning from plane food, report it immediately (and hydrate, watch for more severe symptoms, etc.). If you’re on board, tell the flight attendant. If you’ve already landed, contact your airline or the FDA. An FDA official told me they take food poisoning concerns seriously and encourage people to report a complaint. The agency follows up on complaints with inspections. Here’s how to file a report.
The FDA also essentially said airlines know they’re being watched. There are federal regulations for airlines to follow to prevent food poisoning, and the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) requires airline caterers and commissaries in the United States to register with the FDA and mandates their inspection frequency, based on risk.
Still not convinced? You could follow the late Anthony Bourdain’s lead and swear off airplane food, or just pack your own meal or snack.
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