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Airline caterer hit with lawsuit

May 21 2005

An Orlando man says he became sick after eating tainted carrots on a flight.

An Orlando man—claiming contaminated carrots he ate while aboard a Northwest Airlines flight left him severely sick—filed a lawsuit this week in Honolulu against Gate Gourmet Inc., the airline’s caterer.

Ernie Lyons, a 56-year-old patient-care coordinator for a retail pharmacy, is one of 45 people who became ill with food poisoning after flying from Honolulu last August and eating a salad served with raw carrots. His symptoms included nausea, cramps, fever and tremors.

A Hawaii Health Department investigation into the illness, which infected passengers from 22 states, Japan, Australia and American Samoa, found carrots served by Gate Gourmet to be the likely source, Paul Effler, the state’s epidemiologist, told The Associated Press this week.

However, investigators don’t know when, where or how the carrots became contaminated, he said.

Meanwhile, Memphis, Tenn.-based Gate Gourmet, which manages more than 120 flight kitchens and prepares nearly 210 million meals a year for airline passengers, contends the investigation is ongoing and not definitively linked to its service.

Jon Bronson, a company spokesman, said in an e-mail to the AP that Gate Gourmet’s Honolulu facility passed its most recent inspection by the Food and Drug Administration after making changes to improve operations.

The company received a warning letter by the FDA last month, citing violations—including a “pink slimy substance” dripping onto a conveyor and live cockroaches—found at the facility during a February inspection.

For Lyons, his dream trip to Hawaii last August in celebration of his 28th wedding anniversary is tainted by memories of gut-wrenching cramps, a 104-degree temperature and a $3,000 hospital bill for an emergency-room visit.

Shortly after returning to his Orlando home, Lyons became ill. A later test confirmed the presence of Shigella sonnei bacteria, a severe—but relatively common—infection, typically contracted by eating contaminated food.

His son-in-law, Ryan Wetter of Michigan, was also on the flight, became ill with shigellosis and plans to file his own lawsuit, Lyons said.

The salad he and Wetter ate looked and smelled normal, Lyons said, adding that he ate most of the lettuce, cucumbers and carrots that were doused in ranch dressing.

It wasn’t until Hawaii health officials contacted him later that he linked his illness to the salad and then the carrots. At first, health officials thought it was the cucumbers, Lyons said.

“I’ll never eat airline food again,” he said. “I can promise you that.”

No sum was mentioned in the lawsuit, which asks for actual and punitive damages.

“It’s not about the money,” said Lyons, who hopes to recoup his out-of-pocket medical expenses.

Food poisoning from airline food is common—though the number of reported cases has declined in recent years as airlines have trimmed in-flight meals to curb costs, experts say.

“There’s more risks associated with food in the air,” said Diana Fairechild, a Hawaii-based airline passenger advocate and former flight attendant. “It’s not stringently monitored like restaurant food and not subject to the same state inspections.”

Flight attendants rarely wash their hands and food isn’t always kept at the proper temperature, said Fairechild, who runs http://www.flyana.com, a Web site devoted to airline passenger safety.

Some airlines have required that the pilot and co-pilot eat different airline meals, just in case there’s a problem with the food and one should become sick, she said.

“If you feel like you want to eat something, bring something wholesome onboard with you,” she said. “This way, you’ll know what you’re getting.”

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report. Sarah Hale Meitner can be reached at 407-420-5718 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

The Marler Clark Network