United Airlines systematically failed to fix food safety problems at its Newark Liberty International Airport facilities, exposing passengers to dangerous Listeria contamination, three former high-level United food-service managers claim in separate lawsuits.
The whistleblowers also claim that efforts to warn United about food-safety violations and their refusal to participate in unlawful practices resulted in retaliation.
United Airlines’ Newark catering operation – the largest of its five in-house food service operations – supplies 45,000 meals a day for domestic and foreign flights.
The lawsuits were filed by Eliot Mosby, General Manager of United Airlines’ Newark Catering facility; Marcia Lee, former Senior Manager of Food Safety; and Gustavo Moya, Newark Food Safety Manager.
According to CNBC, Mr. Mosby and Mr. Moya claim when they voiced concerns about “intolerable conditions” at the United Airlines catering facility and pushed for resources to address their concerns, the company stripped them of their duties, reassigned them to far-away facilities, or forced them to resign.
Ms. Lee says United Airlines forced her to resign in September 2017 after she refused to “participate in serious criminal and/or civil wrongdoing,” concerning the Listeria contamination at the facility.
Mr. Mosby alleges in his lawsuit that he began sounding the alarm in 2017 about the overall condition of Newark’s largest food production room, a 7,500-square-foot work area that United Airlines refers to as “Cooler 7.” He calls that area “a total disaster” and “major public health risk” due to its “unsafe” refrigeration temperatures that kept food too warm.
Mr. Mosby and Mr. Moya claim that United’s food production areas Cooler 7 and Cooler 5 regularly registered temperatures of 55 to 60 degrees – 15 to 20 degrees above the maximum temperature required by most health codes. Condensation on doors and on food was also common, the lawsuits claimed – creating conditions prime for the spread of Listeria.
Ms. Lee claims in her lawsuit that the food at United Airlines’ Newark catering facility tested positive for listeria starting in September 2017. She then informed the company that an entire lot of food produced there would need to be put on hold, but United Airlines’ upper management refused.
“United’s upper management resisted keeping the food on hold due to business concerns, and advised [Lee], in sum and substance, that United was going to delay making mandatory reports to the FDA concerning the situation,” the lawsuit says.
A routine inspection on Aug. 24 by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which was referenced in Moya’s lawsuit and obtained by CNBC through a Freedom of Information Act, found 11 critical and 34 general violations within the Newark facility.
In addition to improper food-storage temperatures and condensation, the report also found multiple other sanitation concerns, including flies on the walls and ceiling, “black residue” accumulation and food on the floor, cracked floor tiles and other areas where Listeria could thrive, and dust and discoloration on the ceiling tiles.
Listeria monocytogenes is one of the most resilient and deadly foodborne pathogens, infecting about 1,600 people in the U.S. each year and killing about 260, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s especially toxic to the elderly and those with immune deficiencies and can cause stillbirth in pregnant women.
The lawsuits against United Airlines seek damages for lost pay and benefits, as well as compensation for alleged humiliation and mental and emotional distress.