Food safety on airplanes has always been cause for worry. At the beginning of commercial aviation the need emerged to provide basic hygienic services and the safest possible food. While adding toilets on airplanes was relatively simple, feeding passengers and crew during flights required a bit more effort. Food safety worries the security departments of the airlines so much that many of them require not only that the pilot and co-pilot eat different food, but also that it is different from what the passengers are served. The aim is twofold: on one hand, preventing spoiled food from making the crew sick and on the other, that it does not affect both pilots at the same time.
The largest outbreak of foodborne illness on an airplane happened in the spring of 1984, with a total of 1000 persons infected including passengers, pilots and cabin crew. Salmonella was the microorganism responsible for it.
Verifying that it was dangerous to distribute food without subjecting it to thorough controls brought about the obligatory application of external controls to the industries that prepare the food. This has, undoubtedly, provoked a decrease in the quality of airplane food that has made it unmistakable, but at the same time safer.
Another important matter is the length of the flight. For a short or medium-length flight, from one to six hours long, the main hazards are agents that cause food poisoning, the symptoms of which start to appear in that brief period. Nowadays, however, food poisoning originating on board airplanes is practically nonexistent.
As for outbreaks of foodborne infection, given that most flights are of short or medium length, symptoms rarely begin to appear on board. But when trips last longer than 12 hours they can easily begin on the plane. In this case patients feel generally unwell to begin with, and develop a fever and other symptoms later on, depending on the agent causing the infection. All the same, the process generally develops on the day after the trip so that it is difficult to know if the agent that caused it was acquired on the flight, on departure, or on arrival.
The truth is that nowadays the measures adopted by catering industries that prepare airplane meals, added to the controls carried out by the veterinary inspection services, ensure that the meals eaten on airplanes are extremely safe.
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Colegio Oficial de Veterinarios de Alicante
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