Gate Gourmet is the world's largest airline catering company—you're eating their products on United, American, and Delta Airlines.
If the thought of unsanitary commercial kitchens is enough to make you squeamish, the Food and Drug Administration's investigation into the largest airline food service provider across the world is straight out of a nightmare.
The national safety agency issued a formal warning letter to Gate Gourmet after discovering a string of infractions and health issues at one of the company's main production kitchens in Kentucky. The company began providing meals in 1992 for passengers traveling in over 60 countries, working with many airlines both domestically and internationally, including United, American, Delta, British Airways, Air France, Virgin Atlantic, and Emirates Airlines, among others.
And the descriptions of their kitchens might motivate you to pack a lunch for your next flight.
It all started after Listeria bacteria had been discovered in Gate Gourmet's Los Angeles production facility in November 2017. American, Delta, and Virgin Airlines immediately stopped using the service at the time, Food Safety News reports. In December, the FDA stepped in to inspect one of the company's catering facility located in Erlanger, Kentucky and stumbled on a trove of health infractions that caused the agency to send Gate Gourmet a formal warning letter this month. Gate Gourmet is currently on a type of probation and the FDA is considering stripping the company of their approval altogether.
The letter, dated March 29, outlines the numerous violations to the FDA's safety policies, including live and dead cockroaches "too numerous to count" throughout the premises, broken and filthy equipment lined with grease deposits in the food prep area, widespread food residue and filth, as well as dirty cooking equipment used on a daily basis, including ovens and deep fryers.
The horrifyingly specific details highlight how inspectors discovered cockroach "fecal markings" on the kitchen's floor and within walls, suggesting a widespread infestation. Cockroaches were found within dishwashing equipment, under appliances and freestanding kitchen equipment, and even inside of one of the kitchen's in-use ovens.
In fact, the FDA found that nearly everything in the facility was not sanitary—even utensils used to cook and package food were not cleaned regularly. The report includes details of food residue caked onto metal can openers in the kitchen prep area, and grease build ups on cutting boards and gas grills in the area that Gate Gourmet employees regularly cook in. You can read the full letter right here.
The airline food provider had 15 days to respond to the agency's warning letter, Food Safety News reports, but the FDA's report says it's not satisfied with Gate Gourmet's initial response. Apparently, Gate Gourmet said they had addressed many of the issues outlined in the formal letter and hired new pest management, but the FDA says the company has failed to provide sufficient evidence of such changes.
This incident confirms just how important it might be to spend extra time preparing your own meals before longer flights—especially if you're flying first class or internationally, where food service is nearly always offered. At the very least, consider these ready-to-eat essentials when traveling—they might save you from what very well could be one of the most unsanitary meals served at 30,000 feet.