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In wake of recent incident, U of M expert talks food safety

Photo: GateGroup

Yesterday, four passengers on Delta flights from Minneapolis, Seattle and Atlanta discovered needles in their airline food, prompting renewed discussion around the safety of mass-produced food.

U.S. and European authorities have yet to discover the source of the needles or how they ended up in food supplied by Gate Gourmet, one of the world’s largest airline caterers.  There is currently no evidence of food tampering and the investigation is ongoing.

Despite many U.S. airlines opting to forego meal service on short domestic flights, airline catering is still a big industry according to the Associated Press. Gate Gourmet currently provides more than 250 million meals a year to airline passengers.

University of Minnesota School of Public Health epidemiologist and food safety expert Craig Hedberg, Ph.D., said that instances of food tampering remain rare and that most people who work in the food industry are doing their best to make sure incidents don’t happen.

Hedberg said that most food tampering cases occur when an employee holds a grudge or wants to do harm to their employer.

“If you have an employee within the food preparation system that’s motivated to do harm, it’s nearly impossible to stop that from happening,” Hedberg said.

Instead, according to Hedberg, the food industry has put safeguards in place to scan for foreign or metal objects in food.  They also have quality controls in place to keep the food supply safe.

But Hedberg acknowledges the system isn’t perfect, so people should avoid pre-packaged food that looks as if it’s been altered or tampered with in any way.  “If the packaging has been disrupted, that’s a major red flag.”

The good news, according to Hedberg, is that incidents like this can result in positive changes to the food safety systems in place across the United States.

“When you have a high profile incident like this, people across the system re-double their efforts to ensure food is safe,” said Hedberg.

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