July 1 2005
As airline meals go, it was typical: a chicken potpie, a roll and a salad topped with cucumbers and carrots.
But Ernie Lyon of Florida, who ate the meal served on a Northwest flight from Honolulu to Minneapolis on Aug. 22, 2004, says it made him sick three days later. The hospital he went to confirmed he had Shigella sonnei, a common cause of food-borne illness, according to the complaint filed by his Seattle-based law firm, Marler Clark.
Lyon, his wife, Debbie, and eight other travelers are suing Gate Gourmet, which prepared the food and services many other major airlines, says Drew Falkenstein, a Marler Clark attorney working on the case. “We have filed a lawsuit against Gate Gourmet for negligence, strict liability and breach of warranty,” Falkenstein says. They are asking for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
Gate Gourmet serves 195 million meals a year, says John Bronson, a company spokesman. “We take our commitment to food safety very seriously,” says Bronson, who declined to comment on the litigation.
Although a food safety expert says tainted food on airlines is not common, the Northwest incident is a reminder that food-borne illness is common, and about 76 million people in the U.S. are sickened by tainted food and drink each year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Summer is peak season for food-borne illness, says Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at UC Davis and a food safety expert. Travelers are especially vulnerable, as campers become outdoor cooks and others seek out unfamiliar restaurants.
Travelers who are cooking outdoors or scouting out new restaurants can take some simple measures to reduce the odds of illness. Most important for outdoor cooks, says Bruhn, is washing hands thoroughly before handling food and avoiding cross-contamination.
That means not serving the meat you barbecued on the same plate that you used to hold the raw meat without washing it and not using the utensils you used to handle the raw meat for cooked meats.
And the no-mayo rule at picnics? “Commercially prepared mayonnaise is usually safe,” says Mike Doyle, a microbiologist at the University of Georgia, Griffin, and a spokesman for the Institute of Food Technologists. “It has sufficient acid ó vinegar ó to prevent harmful bacteria from growing.”
Temperature control is crucial. “Keep hot things hot, cold things cold,” Bruhn says. And eat food within two hours of preparation.
If you are dining out in a restaurant, how do you find out if it makes the grade? “Most states do have some sort of grading system,” says Donna Garren, of the National Restaurant Assn., a Washington, D.C.-based trade group. Some use letters, others numbers, she says. To check a restaurant’s score, see http://www.allfoodbusiness.com/health_inspections.php , a site hosted by restaurant owners.
If nothing is displayed in a restaurant, Garren suggests asking the manager for a recent inspection record. They should be able to provide one, she says.
If there’s no grading system or inspection record, look around the dining area, Garren suggests, to get a sense of cleanliness. Bruhn advises visiting the bathroom before ordering food. “When I go to a restaurant, I always go to the restroom first,” she says, “to see how the restaurant handles sanitation. Are there soap and towels?” If the restroom is in good shape, that’s a good sign the rest of the place is, Bruhn says.
Healthy Traveler appears every other week. Kathleen Doheny can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.