How often do foreign objects end up in meals on board?

In 2012, there were a series of incidents where passengers found needles in their meals on board, including Delta Air Lines and Air Canada. This happened a total of seven times in just three weeks. TSA certification was found to be in place and random checks on meals were carried out by catering companies.

A deliberate threat in the system

Flaws were found in the fact that catering staff were employed before they had received a clear criminal background check and that there were a number of temporary employees, recruited during peak periods, who did not have not received the background check. Some airport employees were also found to be using borrowed or stolen IDs to enter secure areas. An “insider threat” can mean that a foreign object is deliberately placed in food to harm someone and the reputation of the airline.

The TSA Insider Threat Roadmap was introduced in 2020 to “address flaws in the aviation system, including kitchen security, supply chain, sanitation practices, and airport security.” Typically, meals are packed in trolleys or containers with a security seal, to ensure that the meals are not tampered with during the process of getting them from the caterer until they are loaded onto the aircraft.

Catering truck arrives at the plane. Photo by Getty Images

Other incidents – maybe?

In 2017, a Qantas passenger found a syringe needle in his meal and took legal action. However, Qantas shared that the meals are scanned twice by metal detectors and the needle is believed to have been picked up. The detectors have also been tested and found to operate normally.

In 2019, a passenger on board Singapore Airlines claimed to have found a dent in his meal. The airline returned the item for testing and said the meals had been loaded in Melbourne which may not have the same high standards as in Singapore.

Meals on board are prepared on site. Photo taken by Emirates Flight Catering

Emirates Flight Catering – first class example

Emirates has its own catering service, one of the largest of its kind in the world. They have their own food analysis laboratory, food safety and quality assurance system and CCTV cameras covering the entire operation. A fast scanner screens all meals from the facility to the aircraft, ensuring maximum security. ANA has also implemented a quality assurance model to prioritize “food safety and security”.

The Airline Catering Association/International Flight Services Association offers guidelines for in-flight caterers, although they say different locations may not follow the guidelines as it may not suit their operation.

“Our Inflight Supplies Safety Compliance Team audits and inspects all CAA-approved inflight supply providers to ensure they have robust procedures in place to prevent prohibited items from being introduced into catering. and provided on board.”

Civil Aviation Authority, UK

In conclusion

It is highly unlikely that you will find a foreign object in your meal, whether real or imagined. Malicious intentions will never be completely stopped, but security measures can always be improved. Since the pandemic, barriers have been lifted to deliver quality and cleanliness in airline catering, with many caterers reviewing their best practices, improving hygiene and making the cabin environment safer. The inevitability of contactless production and delivery has also changed the way we view on-board dining. All of this can help with the potential threat of finding something in your airline meal that shouldn’t be there.


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