Jim Tonjes

Jim Tonjes

Jim Mone, Associated Press

Jack Drogt

Jack Drogt

. , .

Delta needle inquiry focuses on food prep

  • Article by: JIM SPENCER
  • Star Tribune
  • July 18, 2012 - 6:52 AM

The investigation into how needles got into sandwiches on a transatlantic Delta flight over the weekend is focusing on a food preparation facility near the Amsterdam airport.

Investigators are not speculating on a motive, but are looking at the Dutch food preparation facilities of Gate Gourmet, the catering company that provided sandwiches embedded with the inch-long needles. Two of the sandwiches were served to Minneapolis-bound passengers.

One of the nation's leading airline security experts speculated that the incident was most likely the work of disgruntled workers or disturbed pranksters, not terrorists.

"I don't see needles as a strategic terrorist threat," said Richard Bloom, director of terrorism, espionage and security studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "It's much more likely that it has to do with a particular individual or maybe a couple getting back at an organization that [they think] treated them badly or just someone playing a bad joke."

Passengers and airline officials discovered the needles in food on four Sunday flights from Amsterdam -- one to Minneapolis, two to Atlanta and one to Seattle. The FBI and Dutch police are pursuing a criminal investigation.

A spokesman for Amsterdam's Schipol airport said investigators are keeping all options open.

"We have no idea why somebody or something put needles inside the sandwiches," spokesman Robert van Kapel said.

One of the passengers, John Tonjes of Plymouth, had a needle puncture the roof of his mouth after he bit into a hot turkey sandwich.

He is taking anti-HIV drugs as a precaution.

"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."

A second Minneapolis-bound passenger who was served a tampered sandwich, Dr. Jack Drogt of St. Paul, bit a needle but was not injured.

Gate Gourmet officials declined a request for an interview Tuesday, releasing a statement instead.

The company said it has begun an investigation and is treating the incident as a criminal act.

Delta spokeswoman Kristin Baur said that after the airline learned about the needles on the Minneapolis flight and two flights to Atlanta, it inspected sandwiches on a plane to Seattle and discovered two in sandwiches on that flight.

The airline has had no reports of tainted food on any flights other than the four on Sunday, she said.

Since then, "the security around our meal production in Amsterdam has been increased," Baur said.

"Additionally, we increased the amount of the prepackaged food that we're serving to our customers.

"We're requiring that all of our kitchens increase their already-rigorous security while the investigation is ongoing until we determine the cause."

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration said it immediately notified all U.S. air carriers with flights from Amsterdam.

Securing food very difficult

Despite all the scrutiny, Bloom said completely securing airline food is difficult, if not impossible.

Bloom, who last week testified before a congressional committee on homeland security, said food passes through so many processes and so many hands that it is especially vulnerable.

Airline caterers routinely test portions of the food they provide for contamination, he explained. But "when you start from how food is prepared and where it is prepared, and how many places it's prepared before it's put together and how many stops along the way until it actually gets on the aircraft ... if you're a bad actor, you have a number of opportunities to engage in a violation of security."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Jim Spencer • 202-383-6123

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