Over the past several weeks we have seen a complete shift in the way we live and work - from in person meetings changing to online meetings, going to dinner changing to eating more at home, going to events changing to social distancing.
This has created a shift in every aspect of our lives. It has also brought a lot of questions to light about food service on board the aircraft, and how this virus can and will affect it moving forward.
Many of the courses offered at trainDAVINCI consist of topics such as: catering, food safety/hygiene, and Catering SMS, we have been contacted by dozens of clients and other operators all asking very similar questions. What do we do about catering? What should we suggest our passengers and crew do - bring their own food, or use a third-party delivery service from eating establishments, or order from a private aviation caterer, or, worse yet, have no food or snacks onboard at all?
We want to address these topics and offer opinions from myself, my peers, and other industry experts.
As Subject Matter Experts, we frequently receive questions concerning catering safety and best practices. Because of the unique environment, it is almost impossible to be 100% food-safe onboard a business aircraft. They weren’t exactly designed with this in mind. Many galleys have little to no cold storage space and just a tiny sink to handle the washing, rinsing, and sanitizing of all the dishes. Also, the air onboard is recirculated, which allows allergens to roam freely inside the cabin (unless your aircraft has installed the Vikand Air Purification system that stops the spread of allergens, bacteria, and viruses). It is our job as professional trainers, aviation caterers, flight crew members, FBOs, and other establishments, to see that the potential risks are mitigated as much as possible to keep our aviation family safe.
Cooking or Bringing Your Own Food
Many will think it may be safer to bring catering from your house - items that you shopped for and made yourself. We all think we have a clean and sanitized kitchen, but studies have shown that is not always the case. John Detloff, Vice President of Flight Attendant Services for Air Culinaire Worldwide, cites an article from Discover Magazine that published a study that analyzed ice samples from household freezers, and they had the highest cell densities of bacteria. “Fifty-two strains representing 31 species of bacterial genera were identified, with the most numerous groups including Pseudomonas, Staphylococcus, Bacillus, and Acinetobacter.”
“There’s more E. coli in a kitchen sink than in a toilet after you flush it. A sink is a great place for E. Coli to live and grow since it’s wet and moist. Bacteria feed on the food that people put down the drain and what’s left on dishes in the sink. That’s probably why dogs drink out of the toilet - because there’s less E. Coli in it,” says Dr. Germ. All joking aside, before deciding to bring in catering from your home ask yourself these questions:
How do you sanitize your kitchen equipment? When did you last clean and sanitize your refrigerator door handle or the interior of it; when was the last time you sanitized the sponge or scrubber you’re using to clean?
Do you perform safe food handling? Do you wear gloves all the time and change them between tasks; do you properly wash your hands; do you check the temperature before, during, and after cooking something; has your thermometer recently been calibrated?
What about allergies? Are you watching for cross contamination; has your kitchen equipment been cleaned and sanitized before cooking for someone with an allergy?
How are you chilling the food down to the appropriate temperature? How long is the chilling process taking; is it raising the temperature in your refrigerator during this process?
How are you going to transport the food you prepared? Can you keep it within safe temperatures during transition to the aircraft; is the packaging of good quality that won’t leak?
If you couldn’t answer the questions above, then you are opening yourself up too many risks. One of the biggest risks is the liability to yourself or your company. If you get someone sick are you liable? The answer is YES!! If you serve someone food that you prepared and they get sick from a foodborne illness, you are liable and can be sued.
I know what you are thinking right now . . . I don’t know anyone who got a food-related illness on the aircraft. Did you know that foodborne illness can take anywhere from hours to days to weeks to appear? The symptoms do not have to be nausea, vomiting, diarrhea with severe abdominal cramping either. They can be as simple as headaches, feeling a bit off your normal, or just a bit lethargic. So, just be sure that you’re taking every possible precaution if you have to choose this option.
Ordering from a Restaurant & Third-Party Delivery Services
Now you may say, I will order from the best restaurant in town with the best food safety record. That is great and is much safer than bringing food in from a home kitchen. However, there are still huge risks. Due to liability, most restaurants must give you or the pick-up facilitator the food hot (above 135°F / 57°C), depending on the item. This is what is referred to as the “cook/serve” process that satisfies their safety system. Using this method, they have cooked to the proper temperature for the majority of bacteria to be killed before serving it to diners on site.
They assume you will be eating it right away, but what do we do? We risk cross-contamination by putting it in a car, bring it on the airplane, and serving it hours later. If you stop to think about it, the food has been transported in an unknown environment for an unknown period of time. All the while, the food spending time in the danger temperature zone, growing more and more bacteria by the minute. You may think, “I will put it the gasper drawer to cool it before I warm it up later.” However, it is impossible to bring the temperature down to correct levels without a blast chiller in the timeframe before bacteria begins to grow. According to Pierre Rambroul, Upper Sky in Paris, France, “Many Restaurants are not permitted to prepare food for take away. If purchased and resold to a client, the responsibility and liability would fall on the Flight Attendant, Airline, or Ops department. Therefore, for better and safer service on board, aviation caterers are prepared to handle a specific food delivery onboard - special packaging adapted for specific orders, reheating methods, special seasoning, and separation of certain ingredients.”
Having a third party deliver the food for you brings risks of its own as well. Companies like DoorDash, Grub Hub, and UberEATS do provide a wonderful service. Many of us have used them for delivery to our homes and offices. It’s just not one that is really appropriate for use in general aviation. Along with the same concerns listed above with time and temperature abuses, third-party delivery drivers are more than likely temporary workers that not certified food safety trained and may be unaware or don’t adhere to simple sanitation guidelines. Your food may be arriving in their own vehicle with personal belongings, children’s toys, pet residue from private use, etc. Each vehicle and each person handling the food has added their own personal bacteria to the catering. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that the likelihood of catching COVID-19 virus from packaging is slim, and there are currently no reported cases. But, do you want to take that risk?
Private Aviation Caterers
The best choice is to order from an aviation caterer. All of us are aware of one or another private aviation caterer that they’ve worked with in the past. The reason that they are the best option for your food needs onboard comes down to the preparation that each caterer goes through given the unique environment they know they are servicing.
Private aviation caterers have the means to cook food properly as well as cool food properly using blast chillers. This is what is referred to as a “cook/chill” kitchen. Employees are trained in food safety, allergies, and proper cooking techniques to keep the food safe, packaging that reduces the risk of cross-contamination for you as well as take on the liability for you. They are inspected by local health departments, but more recently, are also being inspected by the Food and Drug Administration to further the food safety practices in their facilities.
Just to clarify a “cook/chill” facility is one where the food is cooked to a safe temperature and then blast chilled to stop the growth of bacteria within minutes by bringing the food out of the temperature danger zone. This type of kitchen is specifically structured to prepare foods to be eaten later, whereas a “cook/serve” facility prepares food to be eaten hot almost immediately. For every minute food is over 40°F/4.5°C bacteria thrive, and the warmer the food waiting to be consumed while below 135° F/57°C, the faster the bacteria grows.
In addition to the process by which aviation caterers prepare your food, the methods of delivery are also specific to aviation. The food is always delivered below 40°F/4.5°C to ensure the limit of bacteria growth. Many caterers have refrigerated vehicles to transport catering if airports are far away. Martin Herschel, owner of Carlos Catering with locations throughout Germany, also notes that, “Private aviation caterers in Europe always deliver in refrigerated vehicles directly to the aircraft. This is the only way to ensure that the food is well-chilled and that there is no risk of bacteria for the passengers.”
All private aviation caterers I spoke with have made adjustments during this pandemic. Amanda Kraft and Eric Posey, owners of Tastefully Yours Catering in Atlanta, GA, have increased their sanitizing practices to include sanitizing all delivery and shopping vehicles before each trip. When grocery shopping for an aircraft, they are using food safe wipes on all packaging purchased from the store before loading it into the vans. “Just like so many other private aviation caterers, we already held ourselves to very strict food safety guidelines such as providing professionally cleaned uniforms to each employee to wear in the kitchen; not allowing any sick employee to attend work; washing hands thoroughly and regularly, wearing gloves, and wearing hats or hairnets. We decided to add a few extra safety precautions to ensure that everything we’re bringing in and sending out is completely safe,” says Eric Posey.
According to Rosanna Calambichis of Big Chef Catering (a USDA, FDA, HACCP inspected catering facility) serving Miami to Palm Beach, Florida, “Catering in today’s worst-case scenario requires even more diligence to protect everyone coming in contact with the food.” Big Chef is also sanitizing with Quaternary Ammonium Sanitizer (Quats) between each delivery or use of the company vehicles. She recommends,“your packaging should be sealed and received unopened. You should also be discarding all one-time-use containers in appropriate trash containers which are emptied regularly. Don’t be tempted to wash and save for another use!”
Catering Safety Management Systems
So where do we go from here? How do we reduce the risk? Do you make the food yourself and bring it onboard? Do you order from a caterer? Do you order from a restaurant or a deli, or do you shop and cook onboard? There are many questions, but paramount is, “what is the best way to minimize food safety risks to private aviation?”
No matter what your role is in aviation, planning for the safety and security of your passengers and crew is foremost. Now is the time to enhance your set of best practices for catering. At the point when private aviation rebounds, and it most definitely will, it is imperative that all involved in the flow of food from your catering sources to the aircraft, pay specific attention to the cold food chain’s safety and security. We must have a clear understanding of the Catering Safety Management System. Just as your flight operations have SMSs in place for the operation of your fleet, you should have an SMS for the handling of food as your missions take you around the world. Your SMS must include the flow of food from the CSRs, dispatchers, ground crew - both at FBOs and Flight departments, to the entire cabin crew, the handlers receiving and storing the food, the ground crew assisting in loading catering, the individuals receiving offloaded catering, the dish and linen cleaning. Let’s not forget the ice, coffee service and the trash disposal as well.
Flight operations and ground handlers have to think about food safety as well in following temperature guidelines, wearing gloves, washing hands properly, cleaning and sanitizing practices and the steps the private aviation caterers take. They should have a refrigeration temperature log to record the internal temperature of their refrigeration that is recorded at the beginning of each shift. If the refrigeration is out of the control point perimeters, corrective action should be noted on the log. Now that the SMS corrective action is in place, the procedure receives verification. One other thing to be noted to keep your passengers and crew meals safe is that all refrigeration should be commercial and not a home refrigerator. Home refrigerators are not meant to recover the temperature as quickly as the commercial refrigeration.
The complexity of the private aviation catering business continues to increase given faster aircraft, shorter turnaround times, the wide range of special dietary, ethical and religious meal demands, which mandate catering sources to create richly innovative product offerings worldwide. Catering for private aviation comes with a unique set of problems: lack of storage and refrigeration to accommodate larger passenger loads, longer flights with more meal service onboard, and ovens not large enough and/or often not efficient enough to carry food through the danger zone quickly enough to slow the growth of bacteria.
Catering Safety Management Systems must focus on the prevention of risks at every step of the production, packaging, and delivery equally with the threat of unsafe food products at the end of production. A safety management system for the security and safety of our passengers requires private aviation catering kitchens and the end-user to take a proactive approach to address a specific group of potential hazards, in the food flow through their kitchens to the table. The SMS must set in place a control point to eliminate or slow the risk to an acceptable level.
Recommendations To Do Right Now
During our current state and into the future, we should all take extra precautions for keeping or crew and team members safe. We have all heard about washing our hands for at least 20 seconds under warm, soapy water and doing so very often. We also now know how you should cough; you should do so into the bend of your elbow rather than in your hand. We should also keep our distance from others – about 6 ft or 1.8 m. But what about specifics for private aviation?
I have asked Yasmin Milner, Head of Training at Corporate Flight Training (CFT) based in the UK and Malta, to offer her thoughts from the cabin crew prospective. She mentions that the cabin crew might consider traveling to the aircraft in different clothing and changing into your uniform onboard. “Just think about the different people and environments you may come into contact with on your journey to work, you could be unwittingly carrying the virus on your uniform.” She also advises to immediately add an advanced cleaning and disinfection routine on board. Consider things like your galley, work surfaces, chiller cabinets, food containers, ice drawers and any touch areas including garbage bin, latches, draws, cupboards, lavatory door handles, faucet, taps, flush, and other buttons, etc. that need to be cleansed and disinfected before and after use and frequently in between. Don’t forget to include touch areas, soft furnishings and surfaces need to be treated in the cabin.
Additional excellent thoughts from Yasmin Milner are; limit the number of people entering the aircraft and galley area when possible and keep the acoustical curtain/door closed (if applicable). Also, be aware of handling catering boxes: have they come directly from the catering company, from a controlled environment, or have they been delivered to the FBO and to you by the ramp staff, where viruses and pathogens could be present on the boxes? Try to keep them out of the galley and wash your hands after handling. Lastly, “don’t be a hero! Many of us push ourselves to go to work and don’t like letting the team down. The slightest hint of any of the emerging Coronavirus symptoms you must report sick immediately and isolate yourself. And that goes for your guests, too. If any of them display any symptoms, you need to inform the appropriate authorities before landing and follow their instructions,” urges Yasmin Milner.
Every portion of this industry is considered part of the team, and we must all work together during this difficult time. COVID-19 will inevitably have an impact us for the long-term, but we are all in this together. We will be back, and we will be stronger. It is our recommendation that the safest source for catering is the inflight caterer that you have already established a relationship with in the past and was already taking all the extra precautions to keep your crew and passengers safe.
As always stay healthy and safe travels.
Air Culinaire Worldwide - John Detloff.
Big Chef (Miami, FL)- Rosana Calambichis.
Carlos Catering (Germany) - Martin Herschel.
Corporate Flight Training (London, UK) - Yasmin Milner.
Tastefully Yours (Atlanta, GA) - Amanda and Eric Posey.
Upper Sky (Paris, France) - Pierre Rambroul.
Cooking or Bringing Your Own Food
Ordering from a Restaurant & Third-Party Delivery Services
Private Aviation Caterers
Catering Safety Management Systems
Recommendations To Do Right Now
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