SOMEWHERE ABOVE MILWAUKEE - There's a running joke about how bad the food served on planes can be, but taste might not be the biggest concern. It turns out there's a history of dirty dining in the skies, at 30,000 feet.
Federal health inspectors have found the same problems crop up year after year with companies that prepare the food served to passengers. What they turned up might make you cringe.
Rodents, roaches, and flies. Food kept too warm, no hand washing. These are all problems found by federal health inspectors in the kitchens that make meals for the airlines. We looked at reports from around the country from 2000 to 2011. Many of those done on LSG Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet. Two companies serving millions of meals in the sky, every year. They have also racked up years of violations. Some of those even led to warnings from the FDA, and the problems were not just with food.
At the LSG Sky Chefs' facility in Seattle, there was black mold and dripping liquid on a ceiling over the area ice was bagged and utensils were stored. Also mold and a slimy residue was found inside ice machines. Condensate was running over the mold and dripping onto the ice. This was ice that was served to passengers.
Diane Geisler is flying home to Las Vegas out of Mitchell International. She is wary of anything served on an airplane, including the ice.
"I have a bagel in my bag," she said. "I know where it came from and what's on it."
Gerald Spaulding is not a frequent flier but is concerned.
He said, "that doesn't sound good."
Spaulding is also surprised there have been years of problems.
"It surprises anybody today that's not being watched by people who are supposed to be watching it," he added.
UW-Oshkosh nursing student Erica Campbell prefers to play it safe. She doesn't eat out, and that includes airplanes.
"You'd think that people who work in public sectors would know better than that, but that's not necessarily true," she said.
We heard from both catering companies mentioned in our story. LSG Sky Chefs says its kitchens are in compliance with FDA regulations, and "food safety and quality are our number one priority," they said.
Gate Gourmet told us it has a food safety record that's among the best in the overall food service industry, and any problems that come up are corrected "swiftly." But another inspection by the FDA last fall turned up more problems for Gate Gourmet, and that time the violations in its facility in Atlanta made headlines.
LSG Sky Chefs used to have a kitchen in Milwaukee, but it closed several years ago.