Is Your Airport Food Safe?

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A new report by USA Today has found that the food you're eating in airport terminals might not be as safe as you think. Reporters have reviewed the food safety reports from 800 restaurants at 10 national airports and have found hundreds of food safety violations.

Serious violations, which can significantly increase the risk of food-borne illness, are common, says the newspaper. On the most recent inspection, for example, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport had at least one critical violation at 42% of its 57 restaurants. Reagan National Airport in Washington DC had 77% of its restaurants with violations.

The biggest offenders were grab-and-go sandwiches and other foods stored in refrigerators that were above temperature recommended for holding. At the Detroit airport, for example, salads at the Fuddruckers restaurant were stored at 60 degrees, well above the food safety guidelines set at 40 degrees.

Other violations occurred during food preparation, such as raw meats contaminating cooked foods. At Reagan National Airport, a worker at Cibo Bistro and Wine Bar was observed handling raw chicken, and then preparing bread without changing gloves. A spokesperson states that it was likely an isolated incident.

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Probably the worst offender was the presence of rat droppings at some establishments. New York’s JFK airport has been cited 11 times between October 2008 and August 2009 for the issue. Atlanta airport has been cited 12 times and now uses private inspectors to help with eliminating the problem.

Not included in the report (because it services airlines, and not airport restaurants) was a recent violation by LSG SkyChefs catering at Denver International Aiport. It recently lost its “approved” status after FDA inspections found food safety problems in the airline kitchen that included positive test results for Listeria monocytogenes and evidence of insect infestation. None of the top three airlines that fly into Denver Airport use LSG SkyChefs for its airline food.

Not everyone is satisfied with the “unofficial” report by USA Today. A media spokesperson for Seattle-Tacoma Airport stated that the story left out some “very important context” that ensure airport restaurants comply with food safety regulations. They note that most critical violations are corrected before the inspector leaves the facility and that none of the airport restaurants have ever been closed for a food safety or public health concern.

The Centers For Disease Control estimates that there are 76 million cases of food-borne illnesses each year. Airport cases are particularly difficult to track though because people are on the move. The National Restaurant Association says that the industry is committed to ensuring airport restaurant meals are safe for passengers.

If you are traveling over the holidays or on business, Dr. Cynara Coomer offers a few tips for eating safely at airport terminals. "If you are buying cold food, make sure it feels cold and looks fresh -- otherwise move on. Make sure your food is well-prepared and cooked thoroughly enough to kill the bacteria. Try to eat foods that don't need to be stored at correct temperatures, and consider bringing your own food from home."

If you do become sick from eating at an airport establishment, be sure to report it to the operations manager and the proper authorities, such as the FDA, so that steps can be taken to clear up the problem.

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