Yes, There’s a Good Chance You’re Eating Year-Old Airplane Food

Jun 22, 2019

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Next time you’re chowing down at 35,000 feet, you might catch a glimpse of your meal’s manufacture date and discover that your produce and protein were put into that little plastic tub months ago — maybe even more than a year before your flight.

Don’t worry.

According to Randy Worobo, a professor of food safety and food microbiology at Cornell University’s Department of Food Science, “if [food]’s been properly packaged with moisture barriers — very good packaging that prevents moisture loss during storage — it’s totally fine,” Worobo said. “It doesn’t represent a safety issue.”

Worobo said it’s important for people to realize that when they’re on the ground they regularly eat food that’s been packaged and frozen (the best way to store food long-term) for months, so there’s no reason to worry about doing the same in the air.

“Open your freezer and look at the date on some of those items that are in there,” Worobo said. “I guarantee you, I’ve got stuff in my freezer that’s 18 months old and I’m not going to throw it out.”

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration sets broad guidelines for food service, but airlines are able to set their own policies for food storage retention, and those can vary widely between companies.

Even the big three US carriers have their own different policies.

An American Airlines spokeswoman said the company will store frozen meals for up to 18 months after they’re first packaged, though it generally tries to serve food much sooner than that. United will only keep meals for 180 days after receiving them from the manufacturer and a Delta Air Lines spokeswoman said its meals typically have a 12-month shelf life after being produced and packaged.

As View from the Wing recently reported, American served one passenger a specialty meal that had been packaged in February 2018 on a flight from Dallas to London earlier this month and the passenger wondered on Twitter whether it was acceptable to eat. Worobo said people may not expect their flight attendant to deliver food that’s been stored for so long, but that it’s not something to criticize.

“It’s not like they took salad and the cooked meat and put it in the fridge for 18 months,” he said. “Go in your grocery store, look at the foods that are frozen and look at what the shelf life is. Most of them are a year, and it’s totally fine.”

Also this month, United Airlines came under criticism when a passenger found mold in a hummus cup that was part of an onboard snack box. The passenger didn’t discover the mold until after eating some of the dip, but Worobo said that although it sounds (and may have looked) off-putting, the spoiled food was unlikely to pose a health hazard.

“Think about tempeh, think about blue cheese. Those are all mold-fermented foods and they don’t represent a safety issue. So it really depends what kind of mold contamination is on the foods,” he said. In prepared foods, like the hummus cup, mold spoilage usually comes from the Penicillium species, which is generally nontoxic.

He also noted that airplane food is usually prepared and packaged by third-party contractors, so the airlines themselves are rarely to blame in the unusual cases when passengers receive a meal or snack that is contaminated.

In the end, Worobo said it’s best to avoid eating food that you know has been contaminated, even if the contamination is unlikely to pose an immediate danger to your health.

“When in doubt, just throw it out.”

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Featured image by Katie Genter / The Points Guy

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