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Airplane Food

I was reading an article about food poisoning in the Washington Post, and the doctors interviewed shared their habits.

Don't eat anything cold unless you have to peel it. No ice. They drink only bottled or sterilized water as well as sealed beverages.

The late, great Anthony Bourdain: “No one has ever felt better after eating plane food,” he proclaimed. “I think people only eat it because they’re bored. I don’t eat on planes. I like to arrive hungry.”

“For a super-long flight, I’d order cheese and s— load of port. I’d eat some cheese and drink myself stupid.”

And if you’re thinking about perusing the in-room dining options during your next hotel stay, Bourdain recommends you think twice.

“If you really want to send yourself into a tragic spiral of depression, call down for a room service hamburger when you’re alone in your room,” he said. “You will inevitably be disappointed and more than likely sent into a manic-depressive state for days.”

Posted by
2267 posts

Bourdain’s hyperbolic prose was written to entertain, not feed bodies.

Do those Drs have any data to support their habits?

Posted by
14280 posts

I’ve had the pleasure of flying Delta One on a couple segments in the last year +. I found the food really quite good.

I don’t fly as much as some but I’ve never gotten food poisoning on Delta. When I fly Economy Comfort I do buy food in the airport or bring bagels and packets of nut butter but that’s mostly so I can make sure I’m getting vegan options.

Bourdain was also flying from NYC so hours less on a flight to Europe than those of us on the West Coast or others who have 1-2 connections. Very sad and slightly inappropriate quote in my view regarding depression, considering his death.

Posted by
5137 posts

I've been flying since I was a child- so for nearly 70 years. Have never gotten food poisoning from airline food, nor has anyone I know. Is it gourmet food? Of course not. But I need to eat something to keep my glucose levels from crashing on long haul flights.

Posted by
7050 posts

Turkish Air has (or had at least in the past) some pretty darn great (airline) food, at least the vegetarian selections. Plus handmade lemonade and some Turkish Delight for dessert. Yum.

I've only otten food poisoning twice that I can remember, and the source of both was a restaurant.

Posted by
16924 posts

Here’s the article. I don’t know if it is behind a paywall or not. My apologies if it is.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/travel/tips/airplane-food-poisoning/

Basically they say that the standards for airplane food are pretty rigid and contamination is quite rare. Most reported cases of “food poisoning” from traveling (a very non-specific term) can be attributed to something other than the food on the airplane flight. It could be norovirus ( the usual,suspect in cases of sudden intestinal distress) one picked up from touching contaminated surfaces somewhere in transit. Cruise ships are notorious sources for norovirus, but it doesn’t come from the food, but rather from stair railings, or the implements used in self-serving from the buffet. Good reasons to keep washing your hands.

That said, I will admit that neither my husband (a doctor) nor I will have a beverage with ice in the plane. Actually we drink only wine, or hot tea or coffee. 😁

Posted by
2590 posts

My contribution to this thread is this: on short Lufthansa flights where the food service is just a choice between a sandwich and a pastry/snack, don't choose the sandwich. (Unless you're German or German-ish, I suppose.) In normal circumstances this would seem counterintuitive, but many of us learned this lesson the hard way. Tough to gauge when a provider is aiming to cater to 'international' tastes or to satisfy a 'typical' client, but in the Lufthansa case, better to err on the side of caution.

Posted by
2017 posts

I've never order room service in a hotel-but I have flown for almost 30 years and have never gotten food poisoning with any airline food. Actually I never heard of that before.

I have eaten cold food on a Turkish Airline flight and it was some of the best airline food I've had. Not sure where theses doctors practice. And I've had had coke with ice on planes. Meh. More likely to get food poisoning in a restaurant on your travels.
I got food poisoning at a restaurant in Girona and was the worst 24 hours of my life-thought I was glad I had. nice bathroom as that is where I hung out while my family saw Barcelona.

Posted by
2590 posts

Picture a pink rubber pencil eraser between two pieces of kitchen counter sponge. But there's a squeeze packet of mustard!

Posted by
16924 posts

There was a famous incident (at least in the world of college swimmers) of norovirus infection that delayed the start of the 2010 NCAA swimming championships held at Ohio State in Columbus. Eighteen men (athletes and coaches) from 3 separate teams—Stanford, Arizona, and University of Texas——fell sick upon arrival and required medical treatment. All had been on the same American Airlines flight from Dallas, and the airplane was suspected of being the source, since none of the athletes who were not on that flight succumbed. The airline denied responsibility (although 2 women who flew on a different AA flight from Dallas to Columbus the same day also became ill). Nothing was ever proven, beyond the fact that the athletes all had the same strain of norovirus at the same time, suggesting that they were all infected by the same point source, and didn’t contract it from one another later.

https://www.dispatch.com/story/lifestyle/health-fitness/2010/04/02/2-ohioans-had-similar-illness/24195025007/

https://www.mcall.com/sdut-norovirus-to-blame-for-ncaa-swim-dive-meet-delay-2010mar26-story.html

At the time, there was lots of speculation, even an assumption, among many involved or close to the story, that the source was the ice added to drinks on the plane. It is uncovered, can be carelessly handled (how clean is that spoon or gloved hand that scoops the ice into your cup?) and is less protected from contamination than other food and beverage items.

I know about this because my husband and I were there in Columbus to attend that NCAA meet. He is a former swimmer from one of the schools involved, and now a doctor. That is when he stopped allowing ice in his beverage on the plane. And perhaps that is why the doctors quoted in that article eschew ice as well.

Posted by
3034 posts

avirosemail, give a soldier a bottle of hot sauce and he'll eat anything.

Lola, thanks for that story. As a veteran of two food poisonings in my life, all I can say is you don't want it. I can't imagine being sick with that on a plane as one would literally have to stay in the lavatory the entire flight.

Posted by
5450 posts

I had a bad breakfast in Washington DC before flying back to Vienna. After throwing up in my seat, I laid on the floor next to bathroom by the galley. I went through 5 plastic bags and vomited on a flight attendant in the process. I just couldn’t stop. They finally let me sit in the jump seat and covered me with a blanket. Those were 9 miserable hours. This was in November.

Posted by
8655 posts

Does it happen? Yes of course. Is it likely to happen to you? Probably not. You can always find a doctor who'll say anything, since they are considered experts at everything. They might be experts in treating people who are sick, but not many get training in food service inspections or investigating outbreaks. You might as well say don't eat or drink anything anywhere. And there are people who won't eat in restaurants at all either.

I normally don't eat the offered meal on long flights (i.e., overseas) because the meal times and a full stomach interfere with my jet lag plan. But I'll keep the cheese &crackers and the Biscoff for later.

Posted by
16924 posts

Emily, what a horrible experience.

That reminded me of an incident some years ago, where an entire tour group returning to the US (30-40 people) became ill on an SAS flight from Copenhagen. It was not the airplane food that was the culprit, but the breakfast buffet at their hotel that morning. It must have been miserable for everyone on that plane.

Posted by
8655 posts

Self-serve buffets are the most frequent cause of restaurant-related food-borne outbreaks. Not only can one sick kitchen staff person spread an illness, but one sick diner can spread it as well. And those slowly aging containers of salad dressing? No thanks.

Posted by
3248 posts

I've never been ill from any airline food in my travels.
I do think the standard of food in Economy classes has definitely reached rock bottom.
KLM Economy food was unidentifiable this past year, except for one meal of a decent chicken curry.
I always brough some snacks with me, but next time I fly I plan to bring most of my own food for my flight.

This video has some good ideas about ways of taking food on board.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-U2-dLxs45c

Posted by
1458 posts

Yikes, Lola! I rarely have ice in my drinks on a plane and now I definitely won't. I use hand sanitizer after I wash my hands on a plane since the water tanks are rarely if ever properly cleaned. So who knows how long the water in the tanks have sat there and what they might be breeding.

Posted by
3034 posts

Emily, glad you recovered. My experience was almost exactly like yours. Pure misery.

I'm not a fan of buffets as I've seen people do some unhygienic things around them, like dropping the handle into the food, kids touching the food, and I'll just leave it at that.

If you get bad food poisoning just once it will forever alter your perspective. I felt like death warmed over. Not getting ice and only drinking bottled or sealed fluids is easy. I learned these things in the military being stationed in places with subpar hygienic standards.

Posted by
2633 posts

It took me 2 instances of being sick to make a vow to never again eat any of that wonderfully refreshing cut-up melon that United serves with breakfast after an overnight flight. Both times I was in the window seat and boy do people move their trays and get out of your way pronto when you announce that you're going to be sick. Fortunately it did not linger and I felt fine once off the plane. Apparently due to the sugar content fruits like melon are especially susceptible to going bad, and one of the flights had been delayed at take off for over an hour, so who knows, just that I now avoid melon like the plague anywhere.

Posted by
3961 posts

Thanks for this important information. Working in primary care for years we counseled many patients on preventative measures when traveling. I think it’s important to know the difference between the onset of food poisoning vs Norovirus. With food poisoning they typically develop much faster, usually with 6 hours of consuming an infected dish. Norovirus symptoms usually begin 1 or 2 days after ingesting the virus or as early as 12 hours after exposure. https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwjo5__Aqrv8AhWBITQIHd9rB9EQFnoECA8QAw&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fnorovirus%2Findex.html&usg=AOvVaw3h3Rel0iUM4jBnq4Ir6LKJ
Emily, so sorry to hear about your horrific experience. I’ve never had food poisoning but my husband and I got Norovirus from a guest at a condo in Hawaii. Fortunately it happened a couple days before our departure. In addition to rehydrating before we left, I still needed a liter of IV fluids when we got home. Everyone stay safe!

Posted by
18832 posts

So we have two instances of RS people getting sick prior to flight and one person sick twice as a result of the flight food.

There were 4.5 BILLION passengers in 2019 and a quick check on google only resulted in a few dozen anecdotal food poisoning cases over 20 years and then most not confirmed if from the plane food or prior. Even fewer after 2013 (i think thats the right date) when new standards were implemented.

Not to belittle anyone that did get sick. Horrible and should never happen. And I suspect that for every of the few dozen cases I found on the internet that there are a 100, maybe 1000, just not reported ................ out of 4.5 Billion,.

But I like to be cautious too, so I stay away from the coffee and tea and concentrate on the scotch (neat of course).

In about 1980 I was an Egypt Air flight and we were diverted to a military airfield in the middle of no-where. After about 10 hours of sitting on the runway, they brought us the food that was to be served on the flight. No thank you, that stuff could have sprouted legs and walked.

Posted by
14280 posts

Janis, great information on Norovirus vs food poisoning, thanks for that.

Emily....what an awful, awful experience.

I'm not an ice user even at home so any drink I have is generally without ice but wowser, I will avoid it for sure now.

Posted by
16924 posts

Here is a good overview of the topic of food-borne illness and the subset category of food poisoning.

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/food-poisoning/symptoms-causes/syc-20356230

Scroll down for the chart of all the various pathogens, the most common sources, and the time of onset of symptoms. I was surprised by the first one—Bacillus cereus—-which can bring on distress within 30 minutes. I never heard of this one before.

Posted by
3961 posts

Lola, thanks for sharing the Mayo Clinic website. Excellent reference. My usual go-to for medical information online! Edited to add: I recalled a patient who had been to Mexico and reported nausea and vomiting upon arriving home. Apparently the culprit was the ice in her beverage on the plane coming home. She had been very careful to avoid ice while there!

Posted by
2252 posts

I remember about 35 years ago ending up with food poisoning. It was from the food on the plane as the timing from that was just so. My husband and I had eaten all the same things, but he did not fly with me, and then the time it took to hit me. Thank goodness it didn't hit until I was home, but I could not make it in work for 2 days after that.

Posted by
2765 posts

Honestly I am not worried about "food poisoning" with airline food because I rarely eat it.

Sorry but even in business class on Delta that food's not good. If your local restaurant served you day old reheated food that was that poorly prepared you'd never go back but at 30,000 feet it is "great" (NO, it's still bad LOL!)

I eat before I get on a plane to or from Europe and use meal time to start my naps.....

I have eaten room service.. while it's never sent me into a manic-depressive state but it's also never risen above "acceptable"

Posted by
2236 posts

As far as I’m concerned, this generated a public service announcement. I wasn’t aware of the ice issue, and with a couple of long-haul flights in the future, I’ll be avoiding the ice. I tend to be a lot more concerned about norovirus than food poisoning, since that spreads so easily and takes longer to get over.

Posted by
11507 posts

We are 99.9 percent sure my hubby got food poisoning on our flight from Vancouver to cancun . At that time we were flying Airtransat Club class and you could pre order your meals - but they ran out or didn’t have what my hubby ordered so offered him a breakfast sandwich .
Soon as we got to resort ( about 3-4 hours after eating ) he started to fell unwell ( I was fine and had had different food ) - he was quite sick for next 2 days - finally able to emerge from room in third day but had to take it easy - bland food etc - sucked as it was only a one week trip to an all inclusive- they lost no money on hubby that week .

Emily your experience sounds like a nightmare

Posted by
106 posts

I always wonder how much of the "food poisoning" is actually just norovirus. I guess people don't want to think about ingesting poop so they prefer to think their meal was the culprit.

Posted by
11507 posts

Shannon that may be true in some cases , but as Noro is so contagious if one partner gets it normally the other will too- but food poisoning only affects the person who ate the bad food .

Posted by
3034 posts

When the norovirus is making it's annual cycle through our school, I avoid the cafeteria and pack a lunch. Nausea is the worst. I can't imagine having it on a flight or upon arriving in Europe in the morning. Whew!

Posted by
15709 posts

My rule now on planes is this......if I order anything with ice, I make sure there is some type of alcohol in the glass. Two reasons:

1) Alcohol will help to kill any nasty bacteria from the ice;

2) After a few, I don't care anymore.