New York Sen. Charles Schumer is calling on federal regulators to institute stricter policies and harsher fines against airline catering companies that provide meals for millions of passengers.
In the midst of Independence Day travel plans, Schumer directed attention to food that at times has been tainted with bacteria and prepared in kitchens inhabited by pests, including rodents.
He wrote a letter to the Food and Drug Administration Thursday seeking fines up to $50,000 against caterers cited for health violations. He also called for a change to food safety laws so repeat offenders can be banned from airports nationwide.
"It's outrageous because [current] fines and are so low," Schumer said Friday. "Right now, they pay only $1,000 so it's cheaper to pay the fine than to straighten out their act."
Schumer's letter grows out of an FDA investigation that revealed egregious airline food-handling violations, some in which preparers had no outlets to wash their hands. The agency inspected 46 U.S. facilities, including Kennedy Airport.
The FDA's investigation was based on inspection records dating back to January 2009, focusing on three caterers: LSG Sky Chefs, Gate Gourmet and Flying Food Group.
Despite repeated FDA warnings, Schumer said problems have persisted at all three, which combined, provided 700 million airline meals last year.
Schumer plans to expand his letter into legislation: "There is a food safety bill coming up [in the Senate] and I will add this to it as an amendment."
In the FDA's report, an inspector examining an LSG Sky Chef facility in Minneapolis last year "spotted a mouse, rodent nesting materials and rodent feces under a pallet of food." Six months ago, the same company was cited at its Denver kitchen for cockroach carcasses "too numerous to count."
The company told Newsday Friday all problems have been corrected.
"In the nine years since LSG acquired Sky Chefs, we have received three warnings from the FDA," company spokeswoman Beth Van Duyne said. The first and second were for technical violations related to an on-site food handling plan; the third followed revelations in Denver. Upon re-inspection, the Denver kitchen was returned to "approved status," she said.
Over this same period and "among the more than 3 billion meals served, there has never been a report of a food-borne illness outbreak related to our facilities," Van Duyne said.
Glenn Caulkins, vice president at Flying Food Group, said a problem linked to his company in Schumer's letter involved an FDA citation at JFK airport years ago. "This was back in the year 2000. So it was 10 years ago when that observation was made by the FDA," he said. "It was corrected right away and we have since moved to a new location." He added his company takes FDA inspections seriously.
Gate Gourmet, cited by the FDA for not keeping perishable foods at proper temperatures at one facility last summer, did not respond to Newsday's inquiries.