FDA warns airline food supplier over filth

Inspectors cite catering company for cockroaches, grease, slime

WASHINGTON - An airline catering company must take major steps to clean its Honolulu location or risk the unit’s closure after U.S. health inspectors found live cockroaches, dirty utensils and an oozing, pink slime earlier this year, according to a letter released Tuesday.

Gate Gourmet, Inc., which provides food and beverages to a number of airlines at Honolulu Airport, also kept “dirty uncovered” trash cans near food, let workers handle ice cubes with bare hands, and did not keep food at proper temperatures, the Food and Drug Administration warned.

Company spokesman John Bronson said the privately held company has fixed all the problems, cleaned and painted the facility and hired more janitors. Gate Gourmet, which has had financial difficulties, also fired the facility’s general manager and sent a hygienist and other staff to the site.

“Gate Gourmet takes these findings very seriously because compliance with all applicable health and sanitation standards are top priorities,” he said, adding the facility was ready for another inspection.

Other company locations were not affected by the FDA letter. Bronson said he was not aware of any current problems at any other facilities.

But in March, Chicago city inspectors closed a Gate Gourmet subsidiary’s storage facility found to have unsanitary conditions and an expired business license. In 2003, the FDA found live insects, “slimy residue” and other problems at a Denver catering facility. The company said it quickly corrected those problems.

FDA spokeswoman Kimberly Rawlings said the agency had received the company’s response to the warning letter about its Honolulu facility but had not yet reviewed it. She said she could not comment further because the investigation was ongoing.

'Pink slimy substance'

Bronson said the Honolulu location serves about 10,000-15,000 airline passengers a day on 70 flights, including those operated by United Airlines, Northwest Airlines Corp., Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines and Aloha Airlines.

The FDA said the company could continue to operate the facility on a “provisional” basis for 30 days, when it would conduct another inspection. If the company failed to take action, the agency said, it would shut down the location until it was properly cleaned up.

“Specifically, in the pot wash area, salad area and hallways were dirty uncovered trash cans and trash carts with fruit flies and cockroaches in and near them,” the inspectors wrote in a letter dated April 21.

FDA officials also found a greasy stirring paddle and a "dirty oily" utensil rack at the Hawaiian facility during a February inspection. Refrigerator handles “were dirty and sticky with old food residue” and one unit “had mold growing on the windows,” the agency said.

“A pink slimy substance was dripping onto the conveyor at the 'clean end' of the pot washing machine,” the letter said.

Gate Gourmet, Inc. is the U.S. unit of Switzerland and Reston, Virgina-based Gate Gourmet International. The second-largest airline food supplier operates 115 flight kitchens in 30 countries, serving 200 airlines worldwide.

The company is in negotiations with creditors over missed debt interest payments. In 2002 Texas Pacific Group bought Gate Gourmet.