The preparation of safe and wholesome food for airline passengers is a complex process involving the coordination of many different food service providers and partners based in locations around the world. For airline catering companies, food safety is of paramount importance, and requires strict adherence to established procedures and careful monitoring to ensure that expectations of airline customers and their passengers are met.
Thorsten Steinhübel, TÜV SÜD’s Business Line Manager for Food, Health and Beauty Audit and Certification Services, is an expert on food safety issues in catering operations. Steinhübel recently spoke with Food & Health E-ssentials about the unique challenges of food safety in airline catering, and TÜV SÜD’s role in helping airline catering operators implement and maintain effective food safety management systems.
Food & Health E-ssentials: According to the International Flight Services Association (IFSA), the airlines serve hundreds of millions meals to passengers each year. What is the incident rate of foodborne illnesses among airline passengers, and how does that compare with other foodborne illness rates?
Thorsten Steinhübel: There isn’t a lot of comprehensive information about foodborne illnesses among airline passengers. That’s because such incidents are typically investigated in the countries where they occur and by an airline’s own quality management team. In addition, foodborne illness rates among passengers are not published and may not even be not monitored by superior health authorities across national borders. However, thanks to an increased awareness of the potential hazards, hygiene standards have improved across the board, reducing but not eliminating the risk of foodborne illness in flight services.
F&HE: So why is assuring the safety of food served to airline passengers so much more complicated than food offered in other venues, say for example, restaurants?
TS: Although both operations involve the preparation and serving of food, there are important differences in the processing of meals for airline passengers that have a direct impact of food safety. First, the large number of scheduled flights requires airline catering operators to employ a highly systematised and time-sensitive process that includes purchasing, storage, preparation, assembly and delivery. In addition to delivering a large number of meals on time, airline caterers must also ensure that every meal is prepared and presented in a manner consistent with an airline’s exact specifications. Finally, airline caterers must also provide special meals for passengers with specific dietary requirements or preferences, such as HALAL or kosher meals, or vegan, vegetarian or gluten-free dishes. Each special meal requires adherence to its own strict set of ingredients and preparation.
F&HE: That’s a lot to get right! Are there other issues?
TS: One of the big challenges for airline catering operations is the extended time between when a meal is prepared and when it is actually served on board a flight. On a long-haul flight, for example, the time gap between preparation of food and serving onboard can be as much as several hours. During that time, meals can unintentionally be exposed to less than optimal environmental conditions that can contribute to the development of harmful bacteria. And, once meals have been delivered to the aircraft, the catering operator has essentially no control over issues that could affect food quality or safety.
The consequences of unsafe airline food are also enormous. Imagine a scenario in which a hundred people on an airplane become sick due to unsafe food. This would almost certainly require an emergency landing to treat those who are afflicted. And, if a plane’s pilots or crew were stricken, it could lead to a general security threat for all of the passengers.
F&HE: So, given these challenges, what is the main focus for ensuring the safety of airline food?
TS: The main focus is on prevention. The safety of food in airline catering operations relies on adherence to high standards of hygiene along the entire supply chain, from the sourcing and storage of fresh food products and ingredients, to safe processing and preparation through to delivery and final services. That means continuous attention to general hygiene principles throughout, such as personal hygiene and cleanliness, proper sanitisation of food containers and utensils and effective pest control.
The consistent application of these principles is difficult enough under ideal circumstances. But it is especially difficult, particularly in locations characterised by excessive ambient temperatures or hygiene standards that fall below required levels.
That’s why temperature is the key to keeping food safe and to prevent the spread of unhealthy germs. According to HACCP limits, perishable food must be cooled as quickly as possible after cooking and kept at constant cool temperatures until prior to reheating and/or serving.
F&HE: Given the importance of food safety for airlines and airline passengers, what regulations are applicable to catering operators?
TS: For airline caterers, IFSA developed the World Food Safety Guidelines. The IFSA’s Guidelines describe effective food safety control procedures that are accepted by international airlines, making them the essential standard for airline catering operations. In addition, ground-based catering operations are held accountable for meeting any other food safety requirements applicable in their specific jurisdiction.
Food safety regulations applicable to the airlines are a bit less clear, especially for airlines that operate across national borders. But, even here, airlines have an essential duty to their customers to ensure that the food they serve is safe and free from contamination. Airlines that fall short of this standard could be subject to private legal action, citing negligence as a basis for financial damages.
F&HE: What are some of the key elements of the IFSA’s World Food Safety Guidelines?
TS: The key element of the Guidelines is a food safety management system that provides a structured approach to ensuring the safety of food under every circumstance and for demonstrating a caterer’s due diligence. The Guidelines adopt the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) approach found in many global food safety standards that focuses on prevention during every step in the catering supply chain, from food product sourcing to in-flight service. By focusing on prevention, catering operators can identify the specific points in the supply chain that are at greatest risk for food contamination. The IFSA’s Guidelines also include recommendations for microbiological testing, as well as an audit checklist for verification of safe food handling practices.
It’s important to note that the Guidelines are voluntary and can be customised to meet specific situations that are unique to a given catering operation. Also, a catering operator can choose to adopt food safety standards that are more strict than those presented in the Guidelines, either to achieve a higher level of safety or to comply with more stringent national requirements.
F&HE: In addition to national regulations and the IFSA Guidelines, do individual airlines typically have their own programs outlining food safety requirements? If so, how do they generally differ from applicable regulations?
TS: For most airlines, the principle task is the regular auditing of their catering operators to assess their compliance with IFSA Guidelines and other applicable requirements. This is necessary to ensure that individual food quality processes are being maintained in a manner consistent with good hygiene practices, and to reduce potential liability in cases of unsafe food. Some airlines have their own dedicated staff to conduct these audits, while others use external resources with in-depth knowledge, such as the TÜV SÜD Food Safety Institute, with more than 30 years of experience in the airline food service industry.
F&HE: How important is ongoing monitoring and auditing of food safety systems to their overall success?
TS: In general, food safety and hygiene represent a daily challenge, with lots of people involved in various processes and activities, any one of which can have a negative impact on product quality and safety. For these reasons, frequent audits are an important tool. Ideally, auditors should have specific experience in airline catering operations. Of course, to avoid any potential conflict of interest, auditors should be positioned to ensure autonomy and independence from operations. This is especially important for in-house auditing staff.
Frequent product sampling and microbiological testing is also highly recommended. Microbiological testing provides a clear and objective measure of the effectiveness of the standard operating procedures that are part of the food safety management program, and can help to identify weaknesses or vulnerabilities in existing processes.
F&HE: How can TÜV SÜD help airline catering operators ensure the safety of food for the airlines and their passengers?
TS: TÜV SÜD offers a complete range of services to help catering operators meet the requirements of the airline industry. We provide certification of catering unit operations to ISO 22000 requirements or HACCP principles. We can also conduct regular food safety and quality audits, microbiological testing of food samples and chemical testing of food contact materials to ensure ongoing compliance during food production. TÜV SÜD can also conduct audits of supply chain partners to identify potential weaknesses in supply chain activities. Finally, we can test end food products under real world conditions to assess consumer safety and satisfaction.