What is this “thing” in my airline meal – and what are you going to do about it?

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If you’re a regular reader of this site, it may seem hard to believe, but even first-class passengers sometimes need help.

Randall Hartwick is one such person, a man whose case of an unpalatable airline meal appears to be the victim of a merger — in this case, the unfortunate combination of American Airlines and US Airways.

Last summer, Hartwick and his wife were passengers on an American Airlines flight from Dallas to New York’s LaGuardia International Airport. The airline upgraded him to first class.

And that’s where our story begins.

The flight was going well until our lunch was served.

I ordered the chicken salad and began eating my meal. When I had finished about half of my meal, I moved a piece of lettuce, and underneath it, was the most disgusting thing I have ever seen on a plate.

I don’t know if it was plant, animal or something else, but it was dark brown and very large. It was slimy on the outside, but so hard I couldn’t push my fork through it.

I have a pretty strong stomach, but it took all I had not to vomit. After discovering this thing on my plate, it occurred to me that I since I had already eaten half of my meal, it was as if I had put this brown, slimy object of unknown origin in my mouth.

Quite honestly, I have not been the same since.

I have no idea what types of bacteria or disease this item may have contained and what I may have been exposed to.

Hartwick snapped some photos of the foreign object in his meal. He summoned a flight attendant.

“She took the object, bagged it, and told me she would file a report, send the object to a lab for analysis and provide me with the results of the analysis,” he says. “I have sent several letters and made several phone calls to get absolutely nowhere.”

Now, let’s pause for a reality check.

To even be on a flight that serves food is a rarity, and as a platinum-level elite, Hartwick was sitting in the good seats while others on the plane suffered in the squalor of modern-day economy class, complete with zero seat pitch, sensory deprivation and “you-get-what-you-pay-for” attitude from the crew members. Well, that may be a bit of an overstatement, but my point is, the contrast between the “haves” and “have-nots” is stark.

To some readers, this complaint almost rises to the level of those whiny elite-level frequent flier apologists asking me to strong-arm an airline into honoring a mistake airfare.

But not quite. This passenger has a legitimate grievance. Once you get past the airline industry’s caste fixation, it’s pretty clear that he received a substandard product, and was then strung along for months.

Not exactly the American way, is it?

Eventually, the case made it to the right person’s desk. Out of the blue, a claims adjuster from American phoned Hartwick and offered $500 to settle the case.

“Although my initial complaint was with the food, it has escalated to a total lack of follow-through on American’s part,” he says. “I still have not seen any analysis of the object, so I have no idea what I was exposed to.”

Fair enough. I checked with American, which was quick to point out that the incident occurred before the merger.

“It may be tough to track down folks who have personal knowledge and we may need to search records,” a representative told me.

What’s more, the incident had been escalated beyond customer service and into the hands of the risk management department, which handles claims of this nature.

American agreed to follow up with Hartwick and share the internal documents he’d been promised. As to sweetening the $500 offer, that seems unlikely.

So today’s question is, would you take $500 from American Airlines if you found something dark and slimy in your salad?

Did American Airlines offer Randall Hartwick enough compensation?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • backprop

    I guess we can’t answer until we know what it was.

  • AJPeabody

    They offer compensation. $500 is a heck of a lot for a messed up salad. They promised analysis and a report. Since that is not offered but money is offered to drop the matter, they know what was in the salad and figure $500 is a cheap way out. That must have been one scary analysis.

    This is a job for the lawyers, not for an advocate.

  • sirwired

    Looks like a wood chip or a thick woody root of some sort ended up in the salad greens. During the washing and subsequent spinning, the chip demolished a leaf of salad green, causing it to break down and look icky. And maybe some dirt’s still stuck to the thing…

    On another note, the rest of that salad looks pretty darn tasty!

    I think the flight attendant totally made up that bit about “sending it to a lab for analysis”; I cannot imagine a flight attendant has any idea what AA’s catering service does with food safety reports.

  • sirwired

    $500 doesn’t seem too far out of line; even if it’s harmless, they could be heading off a “I’m now terrified of all vegetables and must be sedated to walk past a salad bar” kind of claim.
    I doubt any sort of analysis was actually done; that was likely a flight attendant trying to get the passenger to forget to ask his/her name by promising something they have no idea can or can’t be delivered.

  • Freehiker

    You didn’t die, and you didn’t get sick.

    Calm down.

  • Sam Varshavchik

    The passenger has a legitimate claim here. The passenger needs to know what possible health consequences he needs to be aware of.

    What’s also fairly obvious here is that the airline will do everything they can to avoid disclosing this information to the passenger. The reasons for that are also obvious. The $500 settlement offer is a means to accomplish that.

    What’s also clear to me is that there’s absolutely no chance whatsoever that a consumer advocate will be able to harass the airline into full disclosure, given the circumstances.

    I think that the only meaningful course of action here is to hire an ambulance chaser. That’ll be the only way to get the airline to cough up their internal documents — and I don’t buy the merger excuse.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Correct. The rest of the salad looks yummy.

  • Lindabator

    I think what he REALLY deserves is an honest answer as to what exactly was in his food!

  • John Baker

    Completely agree with you…. but I suspect that this is defensive law. No tell no lawsuit.

  • naoma

    I worked for attorneys before I retired and my favorite attorney told me “if you find a bug in your food” not much of a lawsuit.” If you have chewed your food
    and now find 1/2 a bug, he would take your case. GET PICTURES.

  • The Original Joe S

    Passenger should have kept it and sent it to the lab via his rapacious lawyer. Let the games begin! :-)

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Sorry, I don’t have a bit of sympathy for this guy. It’s been a YEAR and he’s still traumatized by a wood chip or piece of root in his salad? (You can clearly see the woody grain of the item in the upper right.) If he couldn’t put his fork through it, it’s pretty obvious he didn’t eat any of the rest of it. Prepackaged salad often has other plant material in it and as @sirwired:disqus said, parts of the salad could have come into contact with this dense plant material and wilted. Oh, the horror.

    “Quite honestly, I have not been the same since.” If he’s that affected, either mentally or physically, then he needs a lawyer, not a consumer advocate.

  • kbiel

    There is no amount of money that would assuage me until I know what it was I was exposed to. With the money comes a liability waiver. If the food gave me a chronic illness, $500, $1,000, or even $1,000,000 would be little comfort and might not pay the full medical costs.

    Mr. Hartwick needs to get a lawyer and get to the bottom of this. It probably is not anything worth being worried seeing as he has not become ill since, but he needs answers, not money, at this point.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I want a poll option to be, “Yes, it was more than enough compensation.”

  • Stereoknob

    Seems like $500 is fine. At the same time, they should let the OP know what exactly that item was. It’s probably some piece of organic material that had rotted or something. It could cause problem… or it might not?

    In the end, I feel like his reaction is a bit overdramatic but American’s response has been underwhelming so what can you do? American just need to have a conversation with the OP it seems like and this would all be past. What happened to civil conversation?

  • EvilEmpryss

    Oh, the drama! “Hasn’t been the same since” finding something in his food? I hope the LW doesn’t paid attention to the certainty of all sorts of particulates and bugs in his food every day. It is seriously unlikely that the item was any threat to his health and the cash is more than enough.

    At least they didn’t give him a $500 voucher.

  • SoBeSparky

    The flight attendant promised something for which she did not have authority. Best for employees to say, “I will forward it to my supervisor” and leave it at that. That is like a Macy*s sales clerk saying she would have fabric tested after some soils of unknown origin were found. Huh? Do you really believe that?

    So the ExecPlat assumed the attendant had the power to get a salad ingredient tested in a food laboratory? I guess Christopher is right. Some of these loyalty program aficionados sure are dumb.

  • Chris Johnson

    I voted yes, but honestly, I’d like to know what the hell was in the food. The money doesn’t really matter that much to me (AA can keep it or I’ll even donate it somewhere), I’d just like to see the lab report and give it to my doctor so I know I don’t have anything to worry about.

  • Vec14

    The OP is fine, if a little grossed out? He didn’t wind up in the ER within 24 hours? I think he got enough compensation. The acidity in the stomach and the human immune system are pretty good at dealing with potential issues. I mean we humans have been around for how long before we knew about germs and sterility? I’d be slightly more worried about finding pins or glass shards like some airline passengers did.

  • Fishplate

    It’s been a year. No mention of illness in the last year, other than mental. Any chronic illness he develops now is easily attributed to other causes by airline lawyers. $500 is the best offer he’ll get.

    Take it.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I’m old and this wasn’t a great film so I doubt others here have seen it, but there’s a wonderful scene in “Victor, Victoria” where Julie Andrews decided to binge out on a luxury meal and get out of it by putting a cockroach in the food. Hilarious scene.

    This isn’t the first time I’ve heard about disgusting things being found in food and won’t be the last. It happens. $500?!?! I would have been happy to simply get a different meal. That shows how I need to learn to be more demanding!

    I know a lot of people who have worked in restaurants and the stories… I won’t repeat them for those who may want to have a lunch today.

    Advice if you find something like that in your food: Get a good shot of vodka and repeat every hour and a half. The pure alcohol helps to nuke any remaining bacteria in your stomach. I had a near case of food poisoning and did that and was ok. Note: I’m not a doctor so don’t don’t sue me if that doesn’t work for you. Your mileage may vary. This is the best stomach vodka: Wódka Żołądkowa Gorzka

  • emanon256

    $500! Good lord that’s a lot of money!! I may sound like a hard A**, but he purchased travel, not a meal, the meal is just something extra the provided. Yes, it looks gross, yes I would be discussed too, but if I didn’t get sick, I would just move on with my life. Yeah I might complain and ask for something, like a free drink coupon for my next flight, or a complimentary coach snack box if they didn’t have a replacement meal. If I got sick, I would expect AA to pay the medical bills.

    Quite honestly, I have not been the same since.” a little to melodramatic for me.

    I am curious what it is, it looks like mulch, or a root.

  • emanon256

    Or a Psychologist.

  • Joel Wechsler

    When an airline offers $500 cash my antennae immediately go up.I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that an analysis was done and that the object was indeed harmful in some way. $500 would then be a cheap way out.


    A bit off topic…..but….

    Squalor of economy class??? We just flew round trip from Tucson to Seattle on Alaska Airlines. Had plenty of room and could stretch my legs out completely straight under my seat. We didn’t get a meal, but there was food for purchase and we brought our own snack anyway. The plane was clean, flight attendants pleasant, most importantly, we got there and back safely and timely.

  • Gerry Pong

    I answered no because the monetary compensation wasn’t the point, for me anyway. I wanted a conclusion to I possible ate, and what that “thing” was. AA wanted to CYA the whole issue..

  • jim6555

    It must be pretty scary if American is offering cash rather than flight credits or frequent flyer points.

  • ShrimpBoy

    “Quite honestly, I have not been the same since.”


  • Sadie_Cee

    My take on this: I would never accuse Mr. Hartwick of overreacting or blame him for asserting his right to seek answers. People cannot know how they will react until something like this happens to them. We may think that we would be able to take it in stride and not be traumatized, but believe me, this is something that we will never know until it happens to us. Mr. Hartwick needs to know what was on his plate or he will forever be anxious. His only hope of finding out is to retain the services of a lawyer to get some answers.

    My advice to everyone: Do not eat anything that you have not cooked yourself or supervised the cooking of same. This means that dining in, taking out and delivery from food places are out. Do not take risks with your food. Security restrictions on taking food on airlines have been lifted. Take your own food aboard and enjoy it in safety. If questioned, simply claim to have food allergies or food sensitivities. People tend not to argue with that.

    Before I am accused of it, please let me assure you that I am not crazy and I am not going solely on what I see on television.

  • M B

    I feel the flight attendant did the right thing, he/she felt empathy and put a personal spin on it. Unfortunately because of the corporate bullshit he/she is now seen as liar, where this is a perfect example of customer care, what people should expect of the workers in customer service. But it was all killed by the corporation and it’s spin on things…..have any of you wondered why there has not been a North American airline in the top 20 or 30 rankings? ….well, because of crap like this – no customer service which comes from the higher ranks within corporation, from people that have never deal with a customer before!

  • mature student

    You are half right. That nasty thing is indeed evidence! Yes, you hang on to it. But if you meant to say have your attorney send it to the airline lab, then no, do not give up the evidence. (If you meant to say that your attorney should send it to his choice of lab, then I agree. However, that would probably be premature unless the airline stonewalls.)
    45 years ago, my ex-wife had a temporary job in the complaint department of the New England Candy Co. (NECCO). (They are now under different management.) Customers sent in products with all kinds of horrible things in them: spider nests, pieces of glass (some surprisingly large), you name it. Whatever the unpleasant object was, the complaint department never admitted anything. The customers who sent in products with pieces of glass got a form letter (but typed so it didn’t look like a form letter) that said that the company lab had “analyzed” the glass and had determined that it was crystallized sugar!
    But if a customer mentioned anything legal, such as having a lawyer, the complaint and the evidence went to the legal department. Even if the customer did not mention anything legal, complaints went to the legal department if the customer indicated that they had hung on to the product! So if you return the mystery item to the source of the product, you will NEVER find out what it is!

  • Bill___A

    I think they should tell him what it was.

  • Miami510

    Every event which one may classify as unpleasant or annoying, which has no physical consequences, is not something requiring compensation. This fellow didn’t eat the
    unknown substance, and therefore suffer some aftereffect. News reports in our litigious society have resulted in a perception within the public that every untoward event, even if
    there has been no damage, is cause for a monetary windfall.

    Sad to realize that the $500 payment was probably predicated upon the airline’s cold calculation that turning this over to their attorneys would end up with a cost exceeding the $500 minus the PR factor.

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Did Hartwick ever see the results of that “analysis” of the hard gray blob? Inquiring minds want to know! Yuck!

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    He did not.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    Exactly, backprop. By the time people reach adulthood, they’re ingested all kinds of weird stuff. Unless we know what this object was, forget about it.

  • DavidYoung2

    TAKE THE MONEY! If the OP hasn’t gotten sick yet, what’s the big deal? Sorry, but we all eat pretty gross stuff (hot dogs, chicken nuggets, etc.) Personally, I don’t think I’d want to know what it was.

  • emanon256

    But it sounds like he will, right? Can you update us when he gets the results?

  • Ronay

    I didn’t think it was necessary for you to berate the complainant, just because he (or his company) was able to afford first class. Whether $100 or $1000 is spent for that seat, one should have a reasonable expectation of not being served anything remotely or as blatantly disgusting as what he found.
    You mentioned he had taken photos. I would be lawyering up and submitting the photos thru that lawyer. By the way, I have never sued anyone, but I could see this as an exception, especially since the airline did nothing until pushed several times.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    The flight attendant is a liar. He/she couldn’t honestly believe that it would be sent to a lab for analysis. Certainly no one told him/her that.

  • Mark Carrara

    We bemoan our litigious society and yet many people here think a lawyer is the first course of action.

    There is very little you can eat that if it does not make you sick in a day or two will cause any harm. If he is so concerned has he visited a doctor? Any symptoms? Sounds like a money grab to me.

  • M B

    In a fast food industry when a foreign object is discovered in a food item, what the flight attendant said and did (file a report), is the exact protocol to follow..and as the food comes from an outside provider, it should be in American/United best interest to find out what the hell it was…I would want to know as a business provider, would you not?

  • Mark Carrara

    More cases of food borne illness occur with home cooked meals than restaurant meals. But only two or three people getting sick will never make the news.

    I have found foreign material in my food, I have found rotten veggies in my salad, most times I just push it aside. One time I had a good laugh when I didn’t know there was a toothpick holding bacon to a piece of meat. I ate it and told the waitress it was a bit crunchy. So yes I know how I would react, and being so traumatized that it affects me a year later is not one of my reactions.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Filing a report…Absolutely

    Saying the following…

    send the object to a lab for analysis and provide me with the results of the analysis,

    That’s the lie.

  • kbiel

    Where did I say that getting a lawyer was the first course of action? Where did I say he should grab for more money?

    Mr. Hartwick already took several courses of action without a lawyer. Now the company is being obstinate. Worse, there is no reason for American to not assist Mr. Hartwick as their liability is probably close to nil. As I said, it probably isn’t a concern as he has not had any symptoms, but knowing what the contaminate is will ease his anxiety. A lawyer could advise him on how best to convince or coerce American in producing the evidence.


    Has not recovered after a year? From a foreign object in his salad from which he appears to have suffered no side effects? Get a grip.

  • stockholmray

    What’s troubling is that it calls into question food safety on airlines. Even if he didn’t get sick and even if it was only in one of the meals, it raises serious questions about the food supply and about the underfunded toothless government agencies which are the only defense consumers have against corporations which put profits before your safety.

  • stockholmray

    Honestly it looks like a chicken bone. He did order chicken salad. However, it’s no excuse for the airline not to conduct an investigation and inform the customer of the lab results.

  • emanon256

    I’ve found foreign objects in my food many times, and I’ve gotten food poisoning, I don’t let it ruin my life, and I don’t live in fear. I got a bone in a BBQ sandwich once that broke a tooth, the restaurant kindly paid to fix my tooth. Since food poising can take 6 to 48 hours to manifest itself, It’s hard to pin it on any one place, but I am pretty sure I know of a Sushi restaurant in NYC that made me every ill. Insurance covered it, and I haven’t gone back. I woudl feel safer eating a sandwich sold on a plane that I know had to be kept refrigerated, than an unrefrigerated sandwich I brought through security where the meat could have been at room temperature for several hours.

    Ive also been served salads with bugs, worms, a calculator key pad (Still confused how that got in there) and yes I found half a worm once and must have eaten the other half. While gross, I am no worse for the wear and the traumatazation wore off in a few minutes.

  • Carchar

    It does look like he did get his fork through it after all, but unless it was radio active, I doubt he’ll see repercussions this late in the game.

  • dave3029

    I haven’t flown in a few years now, but from what I’ve been reading from several different sources, Alaska Airlines seems to be one of the few airlines that “get it” and provide a better standard of service than most other airlines these days.

  • innchfromnj

    I would not have accepted anything until I was informed as to the object.
    The more hazardous, the larger the settlement.

  • Carchar

    With many politicians wanting to completely eradicate the FDA and USDA, success in that will only make it worse.

  • MarkKelling

    This has nothing to do with the opulence of 1st class in relation to economy. A reference to that is misplaced in this article. This is simply about someone who found a disgusting element in a meal. Oh and every flight I am ever on serves food – wether it is peanuts on southwest or gourmet items on Singapore or any in between. You might have to pay extra on the plane for it, but it is there. If your biggest concern is that you don’t get fed when you fly , pick a different airline!

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I wonder how large the check would have to be to set things right with him?

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I’d guess the flight attendant dumped it in the trash. Maybe I’m wrong, but just thinking it is unlikely the sample ever made it to a lab anywhere. The correspondence with the airline wasn’t exactly promising with them saying they’d have to search records and that it might be tough to find anybody who knew anything about it.

  • The Original Joe S

    Your lab of course! So, she sent out the “bug letter”, hah?

    Years ago, the story goes, when people still traveled in Pullman
    sleeping cars, a passenger found a bedbug in his berth. He immediately wrote a letter to George M. Pullman, president of the Pullman’s Palace Car Company, informing him of this unhappy fact, and in reply he received a very apologetic letter from Pullman himself.

    The company had never heard of such a thing, Pullman wrote, and as a result of the passenger’s experience, all of the sleeping cars were being pulled off the line and fumigated. The Pullman’s Palace Car Company was committed to providing its customers with the highest level of service, Pullman went on, and it would spare no expense in meeting that goal. Thank you for writing, he said, and if you ever have a similar problem–or any problem–do not hesitate to write again.

    Enclosed with this letter, by accident, was the passenger’s original
    letter to Pullman, across the bottom of which the president had written, “Send this S.O.B. the bedbug letter.”

  • Alan Gore

    My poll answer: yes, with the proviso that the OP did not suffer ill effects. But how does one go about proving that a medical problem occurred, or if claimed symptoms were the result of this particular meal?

    There is no substitute for getting an independent lab report on The Blob.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    thanks to dodgy US lawyers, u won’t ever get to see an analysis.
    It actually looks like a bone.
    Stop carrying on. You sound like a spoilt brat & you didn’t pay for 1st class !!!!

    You sound like those idiots who think

    I’m in 1st class I must be important. Get over it. 1st world problem.

    People are dying in Iraq.

    Need to enlist the NRA to get rid of the lawyers, who are stuffing up the world.

  • Vec14

    Airline food prep kitchens are still subject to the same health and safety laws restaurants and food manufacturing plants are. I’ve worked in a few restaurant kitchens in my younger days and while I was a little shocked initially at what went on and what was passable for inspections, it hasn’t stopped me from eating out.

    I’ll also admit to knowingly eating ants and crickets that were served as delicacies – of course at that time we were drinking enough tequila to kill anything (including perhaps some inhibitions).

  • TonyA_says

    The food he just chewed and went down his tubes probably looks worse than that :)

  • TonyA_says

    Bitter vodka for the stomach. Thanks, I’ll use this next time. Ah, how much of this stuff do I have to drink?

  • Cybrsk8r

    So does you soup, until you find a boger in it.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Maybe the only time in airline history where a 1st class passenger wished he were in the back munching on that half-ounce back of pretzels.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I never thought of it as bitter. I don’t know. I have seen good results with just a single shot. You can probably safely “medicate” at a rate of 1 shot every 1.5 hours.

  • Raven_Altosk

    It looks like a turd. Demand to see the “analysis.”

  • gracekelley

    That looks like a shriveled up dead baby rat!!! That flight attendant LIED sending it to a lab for analysis? Lies. I think he deserves whatever he can get that is disgusting. Frankly, if people knew what was roaming around on some of the catering trucks no one would touch anything from the airlines. Yuck!

  • LonnieC

    Okay. Let’s consider the facts (and just the facts). He was served food (how, what class, paid or not, all immaterial). There was something in the food that shouldn’t have been there (undisputed). He was properly disgusted. The airline said it would have it analyzed (but either didn’t or has the results but won’t tell him what they are). Was he damaged? Legally, yes, although to what extent is a matter for discovery (short term? permanently?). Should he take the $500? If he just wants the matter closed, yes. But not if he wants to follow up legally. If he does, discovery should clarify what was in the food, what the airline found out, and the extent of his injuries. And let’s stop blaming lawyers for representing people who are in this kind of situation. Without legal recourse, no company would ever pay damages for any injury, ever. (Yes, I know, I’m a lawyer, so apparently whatever I say is self-serving….)

  • Laura616

    I think I would rather deal with the slimy thing than get Scabies which was what happened traveling business on United. It was beyond horrible and they need to change out the seat coverings from fabric to leather or whatever everyone else uses. As the slimy thing illustrates, you never know what you are going to encounter on a plane these days.

  • Carrie

    I know 2 people in the airline food business (SkyChef) who started out preparing and assembling meals. They tell me over the years (in their opinion) cleanliness standards have slipped in the prep areas. It’s not always the company’s fault though…..Sometimes it’s the employee who just wants to finish their shift and not take the extra time to call the managements attention to any problems on the line.
    If this happened to me, I would not be concerned about 500 bucks. I would want to know exactly what this thing was in my meal and how it could affect me. But how do you do that if you have to turn this thing over to the airline/food company that served it? Once it’s out of your hands, it’s out of your hands.

  • BMG4ME

    So that put them in the same position as I am every time American serves a meal on this flight in first class. Because I have a special meal and American doesn’t serve special meals on most domestic flights, my meal is worth nothing to me too.