Getting Wasted at 35,000 Feet

There are more than a few travelers in this world who wouldn't shed a tear upon learning that airlines throw out tons of uneaten food every day. Even chow that has gone unserved by the end of a flight is given the heave-ho.

This wasteful practice doesn't warm the hearts of people who devote their lives to feeding the destitute. "We've been trying to get access to that food for a long time," sighs Ezra Krieg, associate director of the Daily Bread Food Bank, which rescues excess edibles from restaurants, hotels, caterers, hospital cafeterias, and supermarkets, among other places. Krieg says Daily Bread has made several efforts to devise a food-recovery system for use at Miami International Airport but has so far received only "a variety of explanations why the meals aren't available."

The main excuse Krieg has heard from airline execs and their caterers is that they're simply following federal regulations. As far as international flights are concerned, this is true. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) mandates that all leftover food from international flights -- whether it was actually served or not -- be destroyed, either by incineration or prolonged steaming at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. The fear is that inbound food might contain pathogens or insects that could contaminate U.S. crops and livestock, causing scourges such as foot-and-mouth disease, mad cow disease, African swine fever, or citrus canker, says Rudy Castaneda, a compliance officer for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service at the Miami airport.

Why does food that was fine to eat on a plane become a potential source of plague once transported to the tarmac? Humans aren't the ones at risk, Castaneda explains. "We cannot get the diseases we're talking about," the USDA officer clarifies. "We are regulating for agriculture and animal disease."

Castaneda cites a few hypothetical situations in which seemingly harmless in-flight snacks might lead to medieval-style pestilence. A slice of contaminated meat or its wrapping, for instance, winds up in a landfill, where a scavenger picks it up ("There are a lot of wild animals in landfills," Castaneda notes) and takes it to a cow pasture or a residential neighborhood where domesticated pets can get to it, thereby quickly disseminating the microorganism. "Same thing with a rotten apple," he goes on. "You'll toss it out. A maggot crawls out and becomes a fruit fly. If there's one of the opposite sex and they mate, they have the potential to cause problems."

Castaneda says the concerns are the same for food leaving cruise ships, except that most ships have their own storage and refrigeration, so unserved food can be kept aboard for later meals.

The USDA does not regulate the disposal of domestic-flight noshes. Nor does the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is concerned only that the food is safe when it's served to the airborne public.

According to Marty Heires, a spokesman for LSG Lufthansa Service/SKY Chefs, which is the largest airline-catering operation in the world and which supplies meals to 30 airlines at MIA, the food is the property of the airlines. In other words, the fate of leftover meals on a domestic flight is in the hands of the company.

So why are the airlines so fast to tip their domestic-meal trays into a Hefty bag? A spokesman for United Airlines's self-owned catering operation says it's a matter of health. "Due to the length of the average flight, good refrigeration can't be maintained with the cabin staff opening and closing the refrigerators all the time," explains John Lacey, general manager of the local outlet of the United Airlines Flight Kitchen, which supplies food to United Airlines and Saeta Airlines flights departing from MIA. (The airport's busiest airline, American Airlines, failed to return calls seeking comment for this story.)

Although no one keeps statistics on how much untouched food is destroyed, it's almost certainly not small potatoes. According to United's Lacey, the industry rule of thumb is that two people per flight choose not to eat. An airport spokesman estimates that about 45,000 passengers land at MIA daily on domestic flights. (The airport doesn't count passenger flights, just passengers.) If an average plane carries 150 people, that would be 300 inbound flights per day. That makes 600 meals that wind up in the Dumpster daily.

All that said, at least one Miami airline caterer occasionally supplies food directly from its pantries to local charities. John Lacey says his firm donates "a few thousand pounds of food" every year to Camillus House and a food bank at a church an employee attends. "Our menus are ordered in cycles," he explains. "If we have leftover, unused food still sitting in our freezer and we change cycles and that item is not on the new menu, we donate it."

Camillus House executive director Brother Paul Johnson appreciates the access to Lacey's stockpiles, but he's frustrated that other caterers and airlines haven't shoveled their leftovers his way. If it's liability they're worried about, he points out, then they're protected by the Good Faith Donor Act, a Florida law that shields donors from criminal penalty in the event of an injury. "It's our responsibility to see that the food is properly refrigerated and reheated," Brother Paul asserts.

But he suspects the airlines feel it would simply be too much trouble. "For them it's just easier to dump it," the Camillus director scoffs. "Maybe if they could sell it [to us] and make a profit, it would be different.


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