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United Airlines nearly contaminated travelers’ food with Listeria, lawsuit claims

The United Airlines catering facility in Newark posed a ‘major public health risk,’ according to whistle-blowing employees

Photo (c) Tsuji - Getty Images
Several months ago, on August 31, United Airlines had a seemingly innocuous announcement. Listeria, a nasty food-borne pathogen, was found in a kitchen cooler at a United Airlines catering facility in Newark, New Jersey. It never touched food and the bacteria was quickly contained, the airline added.

A new lawsuit filed by a group of employees now alleges that there was much more to that story. The employees at the United Airlines catering facility in Newark say that the kitchen cooler tested positive for Listeria on numerous occasions, dating back to September 2017. The plaintiffs say that United refused to stop distributing the food due to “business concerns.”

Some strains of Listeria are worse than others. The monocytogene strain of Listeria, or L. mono, can cause stillbirths and other serious health complications for vulnerable people. An estimated 260 people in the United States die each year from exposure to the strain.

Evidence of L. Mono contamination was found at the United Newark catering operation in February 2018, according to internal documents that employees shared with CNBC. A cooler tested positive for the strain again in August.

United Airlines’ press team responded to the allegations, telling CNBC that the Listeria strain found in September 2017 wasn't a dangerous variation. As for the evidence of L. Mono, United told CNBC that it took “appropriate actions” to contain the dangerous pathogen. Those actions included cleaning the area more thoroughly and retesting the facility, according to United.

But food safety experts told CNBC that when dangerous strains of Listeria are found, the best course of action is to shut down a kitchen completely.  They were not impressed with United’s professed response.

Meanwhile, the employee lawsuit says that when one manager finally shut down the troubled cooler himself, he was reassigned to a different city and forced to do "make-work assignments" to keep him busy. Another employee says that she were forced to resign over the conditions.

The Newark catering facility is the airline’s largest, serving 45,000 meals a day on domestic and international flights.

In a statement to ConsumerAffairs, United Airlines spokesman Frank Benenati says that the claims made in the lawsuit and in the CNBC report are "misleading, inaccurate and in many cases, outright false."

"We look forward to defending ourselves in a court of law and will be filing substantive responses soon," he says.  

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