When we typically think food safety, what comes to mind is food in transit to stores, then available for purchase, and eventually makes it on to our kitchen tables. However, there's another category of food safety: food served by airlines during air travel.
The food served aboard aircraft is a heavily regulated sector of air travel. More specifically, since November 1, 2018, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) required retail facilities and airline catering services operating in or serving the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Passenger Pre-Clearance locations to comply with updated food and regulated garbage requirements.
These requirements are imposed to prevent the spread of potentially harmful plant pests and animal diseases. They might reach the borders of the United States and potentially allow harmful illnesses to creep in and possibly create health epidemics.
Agricultural specialists at such pre-clearance locations inspect and monitor the facilities to ensure their sterility. They check out airline catering kitchens that service flights carrying passengers to ensure that such facilities are compliant with the U.S. Department of Agriculture policies.
Each airline catering kitchen is required to provide a written plan to the Customs and Border Patrol that details their procedures to segregate approved foods from prohibited foods. They must outline how they will ensure only approved foods to be placed on aircraft with pre-cleared passengers. In addition, only approved foods and agricultural products are available in the pre-clearance sterile areas during pre-clearance operations. The catering kitchen and facility operators must show how they will comply with and execute their written plans.
Airline food may be the target of jokes, but proper storage and handling is nonetheless critical for the safety of flyers.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has a list of approved foods that may be served without restriction. These include processed foods, cooked fruits and vegetables, thoroughly cooked poultry, and certain dairy products, including eggs.
All meat, poultry, dairy, and other agricultural products sourced from the United States are allowed without restriction. There are other very specific restrictions on foods such as cheeses. The regulations are concerned about uncooked foods that are potentially breeding grounds for toxins or other substances that can cultivate illness. The level of preparedness of the food greatly influences regulators’ concerns.
Fruits and vegetables top the list when it comes to restrictions. In addition, prepared meals served on aircraft may contain garnishes such as berries, grapes and small cherry tomatoes that are restricted in some way. Other fruits and vegetables served on the aircraft must be cut and can't be served whole. Whole berries, grapes, and cherries may not be sold in the sterile areas, only cut fruits and vegetables. Likewise, meat and meat products of non-U.S. origin are highly restricted. The U.S. Department of Agriculture outlines this information on their website and in their policy documents.
In addition to food being regulated for air travel, drinking water is also under scrutiny. More specifically, the aircraft drinking water rule (ADWR) ensures that safe and reliable drinking water is available to aircraft passengers and crew. The Safe Drinking Water Act and the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations were designed for stationary public water systems.
However, using a very collaborative rulemaking process, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed the aircraft drinking water rule to specifically address aircraft public water systems. Drinking water safety on airlines is jointly regulated by different agencies, including the EPA, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The EPA regulates water supplied to airports, but the FDA regulates water use in food and drink preparation. The FAA regulates the potable water that goes onboard aircraft for passengers.
The coveted airline water cup, a staple to any flight.
Food and water regulation is imposed where the potential of risk is greatest. According to government agencies and other lawmakers, risk has primarily been at border sites and in pre-clearance scenarios where external sources could possibly bring in food hazards and cause health issues or epidemics within United States borders.
In addition, drinking water at any aviation facility or the aircraft itself is highly regulated by The Aircraft Drinking Water Rule to ensure even greater safety for aircraft passengers and crews. These rules serve to demonstrate the unknown hazards and risks of food safety. As explained above, it isn’t just applicable to our usual food consumed from supermarkets. Anywhere food and water are consumed, such as in air transportation activities, regulations and policies protect us from potential hazards.
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