Friday, December 13, 2013
The Associated Press
MINNEAPOLIS — Jim Tonjes was high above North America when he bit into a hot turkey sandwich aboard a Delta Air Lines flight and felt a sudden jab in his mouth.
A Delta Airlines plane taxis past a gate at Logan Airport in Boston in this Jan. 24, 2012, photo. Police at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport have opened a criminal investigation into how needles got into turkey sandwiches served to passengers on Delta Air Lines flights from Amsterdam to the United States, a spokesman said today. The FBI also is investigating the incidents.
Glancing down, he noticed what looked like a sewing needle in the food. Another passenger on the plane reported the same thing.
At first, he thought a toothpick meant to hold the sandwich together had punctured the roof of his mouth. When he pulled it out, "it was a straight needle, about one inch long, with sharp points on both ends."
Now U.S. and European authorities are trying to determine how the needles got into meals served on at least four Delta flights from Amsterdam to the U.S. and why anyone would place them there.
"We are keeping all options open because at this moment, we have no idea why somebody or something put needles inside the sandwiches," said Robert van Kapel, a spokesman for Amsterdam's Schiphol airport.
The FBI and the airport's police department have opened criminal investigations. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration said it does not view the matter as a national security threat.
A Delta spokeswoman said the needles were found Sunday in six sandwiches on four flights. Passengers discovered four of them. The flights included one to Minneapolis, one to Seattle and two to Atlanta.
Tonjes was returning after a visit to Amsterdam for his mother-in-law's 90th birthday. The nine-hour flight was about 90 minutes from Minneapolis when flight attendants offered Tonjes, who was seated in business class, a cold Mediterranean salad or the hot turkey sandwich.
"I'll be very honest, the first bite, I thought, 'Boy, this is pretty good,'" Tonjes said. "It was the second bite that got me."
Now Tonjes is on a 28-day course of pills (at a cost of $1,400) aimed at warding off any infection, including hepatitis or HIV. His doctors have asked the FBI to tell them right away if they find any residue on the needle.
The sandwiches were made by Gate Gourmet, one of the world's largest airline caterers, with facilities on five continents.
The company serves many airlines, but only Delta flights appeared to be affected. The company said it was investigating. Spokesman David Fisher declined to elaborate.
Delta Air Lines Inc. spokeswoman Kristin Baur said security has been stepped up at all of the Gate Gourmet facilities used by the airline. Delta is also using more prepackaged food.
Gate Gourmet was founded in 1992 to cater Swissair flights and grew by taking over other airline caterers, including that of British Airways. It went into private ownership in 2003.
Even though U.S. airlines no longer serve free meals in coach on domestic flights, the airline catering business is still a big industry. Gate Gourmet provides food for 9,700 flights per day. That's 250 million meals a year from 122 flight kitchens.
Those kitchens are often not on airport grounds, so meals are taken by truck to a "sterile" area where planes are parked. The TSA monitors the area in the U.S. Local authorities monitor it at overseas airports.
"Food delivery to airports is a very strict process," said Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent who was the chief of Homeland Security and Intelligence for the police department at Los Angeles World Airports. Truck drivers get background checks, and "those trucks are inspected for everything from sealed packages to explosive devices," said Southers, who is also managing director of counter-terrorism at TAL Global Corp., an international security consulting service.
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