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Summer Travel: How safe is food and drink on the airplane?

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MORRISVILLE, N.C. -

Last year, more than 9 million passengers traveled through Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Chances are you were one of them.

And chances are you had a free drink or even a meal on board. But how safe is the food and drink at 30,000 feet?

It depends.

The meals are prepared at LSG Sky Chefs, a catering facility on the airport grounds. They serve a number of airlines at RDU, packing thousands of meals and countless drinks onto domestic and international flights daily.

Its hard to find passengers who rave about the meals.

"Eh ...   it's mediocre," said one man in RDU's terminal.

Others won't even touch em.

"[I only eat] what's in the sealed bags," said another woman.

She may not have read the FDA inspection reports, but WNCN Investigates did.

The FDA is who inspects airline catering facilities. Through the Freedom Of Information Act, WNCN obtained some of their reports.

Atlanta is Delta's biggest hub, and Delta is one of RDU's largest carriers -- funneling hundreds and sometimes thousands of passengers a day to the world's busiest airport. Those passengers connect onto longer haul flights, often catered by Gate Gourmet, the major catering facility there.

WNCN obtained FDA records from one of the most recent inspections in November 2012.

Inspectors found: Pigeons flying over the ovens; prepared food trays sitting on shelves coated with sticky brown liquid; an employee wiping down food carts with a napkin she just used to wipe the floor; an employee spray washing the floors splashed the dirty water into filled food carts; and employees were not washing their hands properly.

"Improper hand-washing, temperature abuse of foods, individuals not practicing good hygiene. That's what really makes food unsafe," said N.C. State University food safety expert Dr. Ben Chapman.

In response, Gate Gourmet said:  

"Gate Gourmet produces and serves more than 250 million meals a year for the traveling public, all while maintaining a food safety record that's among the best in the overall food service industry. We take our responsibility very seriously and have multi-layered quality control measures in place to ensure food safety."

So how does LSG Sky Chefs stack up at RDU?

The FDA provided WNCN with the most recent inspection form available, from April 2012.

Inspectors found what the FDA calls "significant deficiencies," including: Soil and grease buildup on the commercial can opener blade; and cutting boards scarred beyond the ability to be properly cleaned or sanitized to prevent cross contamination.

The FDA says Sky Chefs promptly corrected the problems, and they passed the inspection.

LSG Sky Chefs told WNCN, "We work closely with FDA inspectors and take immediate action [often during the inspection] to address any issues."

So how is a flyer to know the meal and drinks being served were handled properly?

"It is all about trust, when it comes to food safety, because often you don't know what the handling practices were," said Chapman.

Chapman's advice: eat at your own risk. And hope for the best.

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Jonathan Carlson

Jonathan is an investigative reporter and anchor with over a decade of experience. Jonathan has broken stories that have resulted in local and statewide change. Contact our Investigative Team anytime HERE. More>>

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