Dec. 28, 2015
While clear communication and an understanding of local cultures is important in avoiding unpleasant international catering surprises, industry experts agree that vigilance regarding food safety and security should be an aircraft operator’s top priorities when using food services overseas.
Here is some advice from three aircraft catering experts on how to ensure good international food service.
Food safety protocols should be paramount, regardless of where you are flying. “Although all countries have food safety regulations and standards, they vary in strictness and enforcement,’ notes Paula Kraft, founder of Tastefully Yours.
The European Union is more stringent than the U.S. in many respects, but the rest of the world offers varying levels of comfort for visitors hoping for a locally enforced food safety net. But regardless of where you fly, the best defense against food safety issues is a good offense, say the experts.
“All aviation food handlers should have an increased awareness of the threat of intentional, as well as unintentional, contamination of the food in their charge,’ says Jean Dible, founder of GA Food Safety Professionals and an online food safety course author.
John A. Detloff, vice president of flight attendant services at Air Culinaire Worldwide, says, “It is crucial to use a reputable caterer to make sure food is properly prepared, packaged and transported to the aircraft. It is also crucial for flight crew members be trained in how to properly store the food once they receive it from the caterer.’
It is crucial to use a reputable caterer to make sure food is properly prepared, packaged and transported to the aircraft.
Dible says that while aircraft operators are often at their suppliers’ mercy, they can use that relationship to their advantage. “You’ve got to put pressure on your suppliers, leveraging things like the fuel and other services sourced from FBOs. You need to have guarantees that food is going to be safe,’ she says, and FBOs and local catering providers are in the best position to know the local food suppliers.
Many catering experts consider food security as important as food safety. Threats can be random or specific, but regardless, Dible suggests that being discrete is the most prudent approach to ensuring food security.
“Regardless of where one purchases food for an aircraft, strangers will be preparing, handling and delivering the food,’ explained Dible. “It is essential to give an international catering company the least amount of information to get the safest food delivered.’
All aviation food handlers should have an increased awareness of the threat of intentional, as well as unintentional, contamination of the food in their charge.
In a perfect world, that would mean avoiding use of credit cards or email addresses that indicate where the order is coming from, using generic order forms and order numbers – not aircraft tail numbers – to track orders, and using pseudonyms when passenger names are needed for special-request meals.
But in many cases, experts acknowledge, such anonymity is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Repeat visits to the same places mean setting up accounts with the food providers. At some food-service operations, each tail number has its own assigned credit card.
Also, accepting a food delivery at a busy airport usually requires providing aircraft information to get the delivery through security and ensure that the food is heading to the right aircraft.
The key to minimizing catering security risks while still being able to provide food service, the experts say, is preparation. Getting to know everyone in the physical food chain – the FBOs, caterers and food handlers – will provide some comfort to the aircraft operator. Close links between an FBO and its caterers should raise that confidence level.
Some regions, like Europe, have stringent rules that, among other things, establish lines of custody that track food from the kitchen to the airplane. In places where this isn’t the norm, learning as much as you can about the local service providers is important. Online forums like NBAA Airmail enable crews to share information about caterers.
In cases where the route includes destinations where catering availability is either not available or of uncertain quality, self-service may be in order.
“Most clients will stock their pantry and snack drawers and prepare food themselves en route when going into remote areas,’ Kraft says. “They will have shelf-stable items and canned goods, and that is what they serve until they get to a location where there is catering.’
Even the best precautions to ensure food is safe and secure can be undone by one ingredient that finds its way into every meal: water.
Most clients will stock their pantry and snack drawers and prepare food themselves en route when going into remote areas.’
“What is potable in one country may not be in another,’ Kraft notes. Many countries meet the World Health Organization’s guidelines for safe water, “but our bodies are not accustomed to the water’s contents, which can make us ill.’
The threats go beyond just drinking water. Food that gets rinsed, such as produce, can pick up harmful bacteria. This means fruits with thick peels, like oranges or bananas, are often safest (assuming the peels are removed). However, other produce, like berries or greens, present higher risks, says Kraft.
English may be the industry’s international language for aviation, but not so for the catering business. “There are still many miscommunications, especially in culinary, food, allergy and safety terminology,’ Kraft says. Take the term “biscuit,’ for example. In the U.S., it’s a round, thick, tender piece of bread. In many other places, it’s a cookie.
Clear communication is crucial to ensuring orders arrive as expected. Experts recommend using specific measurements when ordering food to minimize surprises. “If you order a steak, give a specific weight in metrics so your passenger won’t be wondering why the portions are so small,’ Detloff says.
Closely related to communication is culture. Variables – from holiday schedules to generally accepted practices at the international destination – can affect food-sourcing options.
“Pork products, alcohol and other items may be hard to source in the Middle East, or beef in India,’ Detloff says. “Remote locations may not source everything you need, and many international caterers require at least 24 hours notice, so it’s always good to know how far in advance you need to place orders.’
International catering can be a challenge, but much like overall mission preparation itself, proper advanced planning and due diligence can mitigate much of the risk.