I travel a lot. Honestly (knock on wood), I have never been sickened by the food I have eaten on a plane. But the following case reminds me how easily it could happen.
In September, 2004, health agencies from many U.S. states, as well as international health agencies, began reporting persons ill with Shigella sonnei infections. Tests conducted on many U.S. residents who had cultured positive for the bacteria revealed a matching genetic pattern amongst the samples provided. Epidemiological investigation revealed that a cluster of persons ill with the genetically identical strain of Shigella sonnei had traveled by air from Honolulu, Hawaii during August 22 through 24, 2004.
Further investigation established that food from the defendant, Gate Gourmet, Inc.’s, Honolulu, Hawaii location, was the common link between the airlines and the cluster of persons ill with the genetically identical strain of Shigella sonnei. On February 25 and 26, 2005, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspected the Gate Gourmet, Inc., facility located at 324 Rodgers Boulevard, Honolulu, Hawaii, which provides food and beverage service to various airlines at Honolulu Airport. By letter to the defendant’s Chairman and CEO dated April 21, 2005, FDA District Director Barbara Cassens noted that, “The observations made during the inspection revealed that your facility is in violation of the Public Health Service Act and the Interstate Conveyance Sanitation regulations.”
The District Director’s letter listed a litany of violations:
- Perishable food holding temperature violations: “Cooked turkey placed in the refrigerator at 10:30 a.m. showed a temperature of 98° F at 2:50 p.m. . . . Cooked pork placed in the refrigerator at 10:00 a.m. showed a temperature of 87° F at 2:53 p.m.”
- Pest and vermin violations: “Your firm failed to construct and maintain your facility to be free from flies and other vermin.” Also, “in the pot wash area, salad area and hallways were dirty uncovered trash cans and trash carts with fruit flies and cockroaches in and near them.”
- Equipment maintenance and cleanliness violations: “Handles of all refrigeration units were dirty and sticky with old food residue build up . . . The reach-in refrigerator had mold growing on the windows . . . [and] A pink slimy substance was dripping onto the conveyor at the ‘clean end’ of the pot washing machine.”
- Bare-handed contact with ready-to-serve items: “Specifically, ice used for drinking came into contact with employees’ bare hands while being loaded into bags.”
This is another it what will be a long – too long – series of outbreak investigations where we have represented consumers in what I hope will be a cautionary tale, and a learning experience, for manufacturers of food.