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Going Gluten-FreeAugust 24, 2011

Airline Meals

Are the Skies Friendly to Your Special Diet?

We often hear from readers who share their special-diet experiences with us - both good and bad. Recently, we received a letter from Living Without contributor Elaine Taylor-Klaus, mother of a gluten-sensitive family and founder of ImpactADHD.com. On their recent summer vacation, Elaine and her family ran into trouble with the gluten-free meal offered by their airline. Here’s her story:

On an intercontinental flight, we ordered gluten-free meals for the family, a great service this particular airline offers. Unfortunately, the meal – prominently labeled “gluten free” - contained a packaged breakfast cereal that is not gluten free (it’s described as such on Kellogg’s website).

My husband was halfway through his breakfast when I awoke and screamed for him to stop eating. He had presumed that the meal was okay since it was so clearly labeled. Certain cereal products are changing their formulas to gluten free, so it seemed a safe bet, right?

Not so.

The airline purser, who has a gluten-free family member and knew the cereal is not gluten free, apologized and offered to compensate us with frequent flier miles. She told us that the CEO of this particular airline is a “buck stops here” kind of manager. She assured us – repeatedly and adamantly – that he would want to know about this. When we asked her to report the incident, she said she would, but she did not think it would get as much attention as if we reported it ourselves.

Now, here’s the catch. We have reported it ourselves - on the two prior occasions when something like this has happened to us. This was the third time we’ve encountered this on an intercontinental flight with this airline, which is worrisome considering we’ve been gluten free for only seven years and we don’t travel that much.

The first response to our complaint was, “I’m sorry, you will not get a response for a minimum of 30 days.” The airline then took an “it’s not our fault” stance. We posted another complaint and started climbing the veritable food chain. In the weeks, now months, since this incident, the airline’s response has not changed. Here’s what one of their customer care coordinators wrote:

“…we recognize that passengers may have different requirements depending on individual gluten sensitivity. Passengers are encouraged to refrain from ingesting any product if they feel it does not fit within their dietary requirements and select other food products included in the gluten free entrée served…”

A reminder that we must remain vigilant, despite the labeling. I would have no problem with the airline telling us that they cannot accommodate a gluten-free meal. What is troubling is to be served a gluten-containing product in a meal that is clearly labeled gluten free. 

Because of his airline meal, my husband was sick for three days on our 7-day family vacation. I can’t help thinking what would have happened if we were dealing with an anaphylactic allergy.

Share your views with us. Have you had a similar experience? Did you let the airline know your concerns? What response did you receive?

Comments (12)

I travel internationally occasionally for work, and thankfully, in business class. I've concluded that the quality of what you get depends on the airport from (and airline on) which you fly. Delta from Detroit to Beijing was horrible. I was given plain rice and a boiled chicken breast, and two big plates of plain lettuce (with salad dressing whose ingredients clearly stated "contains wheat"), for three meals. Really, for a $5,000 plane ticket? 13 hrs is a long time to drink tea and eat bars. Flying back on Delta from Beijing, though, I actually had an edible meal. Qatar Airways from Washington Dulles was not bad. Qatar Airways from Qatar, however, was extraordinary. I was given my own bag of GF rolls for my two meals, and had many delicious options from the appetizers to dessert. United on any flight from any airport has always been awful. I think part of the problem is the airlines, and part of the problem is the airport catering facilities who supply all of the airlines with their meals. Pressure has to be put on the airlines to pressure the airport meal suppliers. I do often carry my own sandwich on many flights, whether in economy or business class, but when a flight is 10+ hours long, and your company is paying many thousands of dollars for a ticket, I think one should be able to get a decent and safe meal and not live on what you've managed to stuff in your carry-on bag.

Posted by: Julie K | September 8, 2011 7:58 PM    Report this comment

I fly quite fequently. I have had good meals and bad. The airlines seem to think that a vegan meal or fish meal would be gluten free. Since they have already been notified that I can't eat gluten or fish/seafood it is vey disappointing to get a meal that is not correctly gluten free. Luckily I always carry gluten free snacks and my husband is very accommodating. He gives me what I can eat from his meal and he eats my meal or switches meals with me. Most airline stewarts will try to find something wether they have to go raid the first class cabin or not. I have had one lady actually offer me her fruit from her personal meal. Quantas in Austraila is very accommodating and they gave me fresh fruit and yoguart for breakfast and fruit and a gluten free power bar with my cheese and gluten free crackers for lunch. Austraila is ahead of us in terms of being a GF Friendly country. We have to keep explaining and complaining when things don't work out however disappointing the service or response to the complaint. And as always dont eat anything that you think is "ify".

Posted by: Crystal B | August 28, 2011 3:01 PM    Report this comment

Traveling gluten free is still a crap shoot as described in the experiences of contributors. Personally I travel with Think Thin Bars that have done right by me so far. I would prefer the well-prepared meal but it takes me about three months to recover if it is contaminated.

Posted by: Daniel S | August 26, 2011 7:09 PM    Report this comment

I travel a lot and would really appreciate if we could know the name of the airline, for everybody's sake. My husband and I flew Open Skies this summer and their GF food was really good and well thought.

Posted by: Rosa Rodriguez | August 26, 2011 5:25 PM    Report this comment

Actually, I don't think the cereal manufacturer should be blamed for this. I don't think they put the gluten-free label on the meal, the airline meal prep company did. That's a major problem with re-packaging. You can find big box stores (including drug stores), vending companies, and the companies- like those that prepare airline foods, who re-package. The manufacturers of many products state on their website that their product is gluten-free or nut-free, etc., but that applies only to original packaging. Who knows about the cross contamination issues in re-packaged products, let alone mislabeling. Yes, it can be boring to eat the "same ole, same ole" for several meals when traveling. But better safe than sorry, anytime!

Posted by: Elgie | August 26, 2011 1:51 PM    Report this comment

The legal responsibility lies with the airline.

You can carry fresh food -- fruits and vegetables -- on board an airplane, even an intercontinental/international flight. You just can't always take it off the plane into the receiving country. That means you eat it on the plane, and what you don't eat, leave on the plane.

You can also ask the flight attendant to heat up your food, and if they can, they will. Always travel with enough food to sustain you.

Posted by: sharman m | August 26, 2011 3:48 AM    Report this comment

I agree that the cereal manufacturer is the real culprit here! So, if this was K*****'s, they need to be outed and further educated! The other problem with flying gluten free-I can certainly pack my own foods, but TSA does not allow gel packs to keep things cold if that is necessary and water ice is such a time limited coolant. It means that we will be stuck with shelf stable-room temperature stable foods. I am not looking forward to my next flight of almond butter-peanut butter and cracker meals! As snacks, it is fine, but there is a limit. Nuts, cookies, chips & candy do not a contribute to a healthy diet. I guess I can deal with 24 hours of poor nutrition, but I do not have to like it! About the healthiest things I've found which are generally palatable are Larabars. There are a number of flavors that I can't have, but they are the most satisfying as a light meal because they are not heavy with sugars. Real fruit? That is not allowed on many flights because of destination 'infestation' issues. Maybe I could bring some applesauce and canned fruit... Barbara's makes gluten free cereals, but I recently missed the oat ingredient inclusion. Yes, they are stringent with growing uncontaminated oats, but I can't eat oats either. So, I'm handing out the cereal as snacks to my dogs.... I bought some snack bars from aBakery on Main- really poor quality. They don't taste remotely like their ingredients and they taste stale besides-even though the expiry date is a year from now. I'd like to wrap them up and send them back to their manufacturer. As always, it is buyer beware and bring a magnifying glass to read the fine print. The best quality and flavor come from (IMHO) Glutino-crackers-GF saltines; plain, cheese, vegetable & multigrain; oreo cookie clones, & other pretty close to what I remember treats. Tired now, but I really have a problem with inaccurate labeling. I do not enjoy throwing food out because of mislabeling issues.

Posted by: Eileen S | August 26, 2011 1:55 AM    Report this comment

Let us not forget... if foods arent prepared in a dedicated GFCFsoyF Kitchen.. we're Still taking a chance we might eat something cross contaminated. And, as we know, this diet is based on Molecules, so it only takes one to a few Molecules to set off a reaction. Lots of eating out places now offer GF or more... but I have to remember they know NOTHING about cross conatamination and probably wont be as careful with foods and utensils and definately in general are Not a dedicated to GFCF kitchen. Last flight I took, inside USA, I also took GFCFSoyF snacks and sandwiches with me, showed them to the stewardess who gave me the nod and said it's okey..then in their airline book, read their New rules.. any foods 'bought' in the airports (or passed by inspeciton at the gate?? because they were..and they were in a gluten free bread bag..) are allowed to be taken on board this particular airline. Surprise..!!

If I know that places such as arilines or as our last experience with grandkids..the Zoo..post they don't allow carry in foods, I try to call ahead to get permission. However, with the airline, I didn't think of it but did carry on board, Ate only the snacks on the plane and sandwiches in the waiting room since I had a connecting flight pause. Even the new Cereals marked GF.. we should write to to ask for a dedicated production facility, instead of the wash down they 'claim'... included with Thanks for the try at GF....just IMO.

Posted by: grandma peg | August 25, 2011 10:53 AM    Report this comment

My husband and I flew to Hawaii, and they provided him with a gluten-free meal as requested.

UNFORTUNATELY, no one told us that we needed to confirm a gluten-free meal on the return trip, so he did not get one on the way back!! That's a very long trip without food! Luckily I had brought gluten-free snacks and swapped stuff between the meals so he had something to eat (salad)!

So be sure to confirm your special meal request on the way back!

Posted by: CAROL D | August 25, 2011 9:45 AM    Report this comment

PLEASE post the name of the airline! Companies generally don't care what you write about them online until you start naming names-then they pay attention! This is true whether the info is good or bad. You might also go onto their website and see if there is anyplace to comment about this episode there. In addition, go online and get the contact info for the CEO of that airline and write to him or her directly. Stress that this type of error could easily kill someone with an anaphylactic type of allergy and that they need to correct this problem BEFORE someone dies! It is just inexcusable for a large company to be so careless and they need to understand that.

Posted by: Janet P | August 25, 2011 9:21 AM    Report this comment

I think it is very important that airlines be on-top of this and responsive. Earlier this summer I took an intercontinental flight on an airline that gave me a wheat roll with my meal, which I identified and immediately handed back to the stewardess. On the return flight the same Airline didn't have my gluten free meal. Thankfully, as a GF person I travel with lots of snacks, as 9 hours is a longtime w/o food.

By comparison, I also took several LONG intercontinental flights on Emirates airlines this summer and they had clearly labeled gluten free meals that were gourmet and delicious. Including gluten free bread and gluten free desserts! I was impressed! As a gluten free, or vegan or kosher or any kind of meal on an airline the passenger needs to be able to trust the airline and so I believe it is very much the airline's responsibility to get it right. Otherwise they shouldn't offer the service. If you do it, do it right.

Posted by: glutenfreeinco | August 25, 2011 9:12 AM    Report this comment

I think the target here should be the cereal manufacturer who irresponsibly labels products as gluten free when they are not.

How can ANY establishment offer gluten free patrons food that is safe if they can not trust the labeling to give them the correct information? It is not up to the establishment (unless they are advertising themselves to be gluten free) to independently test and research the food -- and know the special behind-the-scenes truths on gluten and gluten free foods. These people are trying to accommodate customers and then are being slammed for doing it.

I think we need to give kudos to the establishments that are trying to offer gluten free options and save my ire & anger for the manufacturers who have false or inaccurate labeling. I would love to know what cereal labels itself as gluten free but is not.

Posted by: Unknown | August 25, 2011 9:01 AM    Report this comment

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