This week marks the beginning of the first full week of 2020, and millions of Americans will begin their typical routines again, and along with it, their daily work and personal travel in the air. Recent headlines have shed light on the lack of consistent inspections on airplane food and subsequent health concerns that leave us all wondering – how safe is airplane food, really?

While on-board meals are held to strict safety standards, the risk of bacteria can be greater in the air due to the lag time between when the food is prepared and when it’s served. Image: CNBC

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in 2018, one billion passengers flew on US airlines and foreign airlines serving the US. With this many Americans flying every year, the effects of in-flight food service and its safety are vast and far-reaching. According to an NBC News investigative article, airplane food and airplane catering companies are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Whereas local US health inspectors regularly examine brick and mortar restaurants and dining establishments with strict criteria for food and safety obligations, the FDA only requires inspection of airline food and their catering companies every 3-5 years. In fact, one of the FDA’s manuals states that inspections occur “when time and opportunity allow.” The lack of a structured schedule and loose standardization for airline food have us yelling “mayday!”

 FDA records indicate when airplanes do receive inspections, there are often a myriad of violations reported but are rarely followed up with any sort of penalty. Thousands of inspection reports from the FDA of airline catering companies often describe horrendous conditions and violations, with the top three catering companies and 16 biggest airline companies in the US, like Delta and American Airlines, receiving at least 1,486 safety citations from the FDA since October of 2008. Despite this, airline sanctioned catering companies can continue operating and producing high volumes of meals, sometimes hundreds of thousands of meals a day. Shockingly, there are even multiple FDA reports since 2008 that cite positive tests of deadly bacteria in airline food. Usually, the FDA requires the companies to fix the violations, with the expectation that these problems will be resolved by the next inspection. But with inspections frequently being years apart, both accountability, and your flight, find a way to depart.

So how does all of this affect you as a traveler? Well, unsanitary conditions and safety violations can lead to contaminated food, which can easily cause foodborne illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified over 250 foodborne illnesses, most of which are caused by bacteria that, when ingested, can cause symptoms in as little as half an hour, or remain dormant for as long as a month. According to the CDC, the symptoms of foodborne illnesses vary based on the individual, but common symptoms are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain and cramps, a fever, reduced appetite and exhaustion. If you do start to experience these symptoms, seek medical treatment immediately, as often times antibiotics can help significantly when treating food poisoning. It is also imperative that, if afflicted with this type of illness, travelers replace fluids frequently, as dehydration can easily set in due to frequent diarrhea and vomiting.

The CDC estimates that 48 million Americans get food poisoning every year, and even though it is extremely difficult to link airline food to foodborne illness, due to the ongoing and changing geographical distance between passengers, the risk for these types of illnesses, based on past reporting and FDA standards, is extremely high and should cause a traveler to think twice before ordering the ham and cheese.

To protect yourself from possible illness while on a plane, VIGILINT advises that passengers steer clear of airline meals altogether, choosing to only eat prepackaged foods and drinks on board. A traveler should consider bringing their own food onto a flight or choosing to eat before or after a flight, rather than during it.

If you or your traveling companion wind up in a foodborne illness-related medical emergency situation anywhere in the world, VIGILINT offers a comprehensive Global MedAssist Program (GMAP) including medical evacuation to your hospital of choice, access to our 24/7 Medical Operations Center, and our board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician team. Contact VIGILINT for more information: 1 (919) 914-0900.