Sen. Schumer calls for tougher fines against unsanitary airline caterers

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Thursday pushed for tougher fines — as high as $50,000 per violation — for airline caterers with repeat health code violations. He also asked the Food and Drug Administration to impose new rules that would ban repeat offenders from operating at all U.S. airports.

"I would like to work with you in crafting legislation to enhance the penalties that FDA will have at its disposal for repeated violations of our airline food safety laws and regulations," Schumer wrote in a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. "While there is current legislation pending in Congress that the FDA supports, legislation that will significantly enhance the safety of our food supply and increase penalties for other types of violations, the problem of contamination in the airline food preparation process also needs to be addressed through increased penalties."

Current penalties are $1,000 per violation regardless of whether the violator is a repeat offender, and Schumer said he plans to introduce legislation increasing fines to as much as $50,000. He also asked Hamburg to change FDA rules so that caterers involved in repeat offenses face a shutdown of all their U.S. operations, not just the ones where violations were identified.

"The FDA needs to end this cat-and-mouse game that encourages airline caterers to only clean up certain of their facilities after being caught red-handed," Schumer said in a statement. "If these companies are threatened with a shutdown nationwide, they will make sure they are in compliance nationwide."

The letter comes after FDA inspectors cited three of the world's largest caterers for suspected health and sanitation violations this year and last. The caterers — LSG Sky Chefs, Gate Gourmet and Flying Food Group — prepared more than 675 million meals in 2009, according to Schumer's office.