Trains and boats and planes….


Every minute of every day all year round, people across the world board trains, planes and boats and expect to be fed and watered as they would in any other land-based or stationary food establishment, whether they are 30,000 ft in the air or in the middle of the Atlantic ocean.


Thousands of meals are served 24 hours a day to passengers not on terra-firma, yet we are still presented with a choice of on-trend food that caters for an increasing range of dietary requirements and special meal requests.  When it comes to keeping standards high, it’s not only the quality of the food but the hygiene standards that have to be kept on top of.


Not an easy job in these challenging environments where space and facilities are often limited.


To start with, the food transfer chain is more complex when it comes to planes, ships and trains.  This means more opportunities for the introduction, or proliferation, of contaminants in food.


Take loading catering supplies on board ship for example.  Some big cruise ships these days carry the same numbers as a small town, over 6000 people, and they all have to fed daily whilst hundreds of miles from land.


There are multiple sources for food coming into port – and each port will have different sources with different challenges. The supplies are then transferred to storage points on board. These vary in location and type and food items are further distributed around the ship.


Supplies are prepared, cooked, mixed and served by a vast team of staff, some ocean going ships have a huge number of staff, as an example Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas has a crew of 2,100!


Finally the handling and storage of food for personal consumption by passengers or crew, including taking food away and storing it in private areas for consumption at a later time, offers other opportunities for hygiene risks.


At any and all of these points there is potential for contamination if standards and procedures are not adhered to.


Factors that contribute to food-borne outbreaks in environments such as those onboard ship include:

  • contaminated raw ingredients
  • inadequate temperature control
  • inadequate heat treatment
  • keeping food at an ambient temperature for extended periods (think food buffets)
  • infected food handlers


And an added factor when at sea is the presence and use of seawater.  The presence of non-potable water on ships can present additional risks for food contamination and only potable water should be supplied to the galley.


It’s a similar thing when it comes to air travel. The preparation of safe and nutritious food for airline passengers is a multifaceted process involving the coordination of many different food service providers and partners based in a variety of locations all around the world.  Strict adherence to established procedures and careful monitoring is essential to ensure that food safety levels are not just met but exceeded.


There are, as you would imagine, some unique challenges though when it comes to food safety in airline catering.


Airline catering units need to use a highly systemised and time-sensitive method that covers purchasing, storing, preparing, assembling and finally delivering meals. As well as delivering a large number of meals on time and in one go, every meal has to be consistent and meet individual airline specifications.  As with ship catering, there is the added element of providing special meals such as Halal or kosher or vegan, gluten-free etc.


One of the biggest challenges for airline catering operations is the extended time gap from when a meal is prepared and when it is actually served on board a flight. On a long-haul flight, for example, the time gap between preparation of food and serving onboard can be up to several hours. During that time, meals can unintentionally be exposed to less than ideal environmental conditions that may contribute to the development of harmful bacteria.


To give you an idea of numbers, Emirates airline serves more than 1500 different menus annually.   From its Dubai catering units, Emirates Flight Catering creates approximately 50 million meals for its planes, and eight million for other airlines, each year. With a daily production of 500,000 bakery items and a daily protein and vegetable turnover of 20,000 kilograms each.*


Things are not quite as difficult with train catering but the space constraints and limitations on facilities are the same.  Although trains can take on produce and pre-prepared items at more stops during the journey, there are still meals to prepare on board.


This is particularly true with luxury train travel and special train journeys such as the Blue Train in South Africa or the Venice Simplon Orient Express where travellers are on board for several days and except five star treatment.


Exotic and interesting meals have to be offered, often a multi-course menu, several times a day, which involves not only coping with restricted space and varying temperatures but the bumps and veering as the train hurtles along the tracks.  All this whilst cooking over a gas or electric hob.


When we travel, we all take our meals on board for granted, even if these days they are not always complimentary.


But it’s worth giving some thought to just how much time and effort is taken to serve you that meal in both a tasty and hygienic way. And how important it is that measures are in place to ensure standards are maintained so that we can travel with a certain peace of mind when it comes to food contamination.


Figures courtesy of