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Is Delta's Food Policy Reckless Endangerment?

Born and bred in Atlanta, GA, I have always been a classic loyalist for Coca Cola and Delta Airlines. I have always chosen water if Pepsi products are the only option, and I’ve always flown Delta if the price is even close.

But as a mother of a gluten sensitive family, I am deeply, dangerously, disappointed in a series of recent encounters with Delta’s Food Service and Customer Service departments.  As a constituent, I am angry. As a native Atlantan, I am embarrassed. As a Gluten-Free mother, I am activated!  Here’s our story.

On a Delta intercontinental flight we ordered Gluten Free meals for the family, which is a great service that Delta offers. Unfortunately, the meal – clearly labeled “Gluten Free” – contained a packaged breakfast cereal that is NOT gluten free, and is clearly marked as such on Kellogg’s website.

My husband was halfway through his breakfast when I awoke and screamed for him to stop!  He had presumed – rightly so, I believe – that the meal was safe for him to eat since it was so clearly labeled. We all know that increasingly more standard products are changing their formulas to comply with GF standards, so it seemed a safe bet, right? NOT.

The flight attendant immediately brought us a very large bottle of water (fortunately, for him, flooding it out helps to limit the reaction). Following the water, they sent the airline Purser, who has a GF family member and knew, herself, that the cereal is not GF. She apologized, offered to compensate us with frequent flier miles, and told us that the new CEO of Delta, Richard Anderson, is a “buck stops here” kind of CEO. 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 that something like this has happened to us. Yes, this was the THIRD time we’ve encountered this on a Delta intercontinental flight, which is pretty pathetic considering we’ve only been GF for 7 years, and we actually don’t travel all that much!

But if Delta Food Service’s lack of due diligence isn’t embarrassing enough, wait until you hear about Customer Service’s (lack of) response. Forget the bureaucratic ridiculousness: “I’m sorry, sir, you will not get a response for a minimum of 30 days.” Delta has taken an “it’s not our fault” stance, leaving us to conclude that their policy around food allergies recklessly endangers the health and lives of their passengers.

Much like a parent feels when a teen breaks curfew to help a friend, I wanted to believe that Delta’s irresponsible policy was based in good intentions – that, once the company knew what was happening, they would readily, eagerly, make the necessary changes to provide safe food for their passengers. The first response to our complaint was unacceptable, so we posted another complaint and started climbing the veritable food chain. To our shock, in the weeks, now months, since this incident, Delta’s response has not changed.  Here’s what one Delta Customer Care Coordinator wrote:

“I am genuinely sorry you were dissatisfied with my response.” (Note, no apology for serving us poisonous food). “I understand you feel I did not adequately address your concerns. Further, I recognize that you are dissatisfied (dissatisfied?!) with the products that were included in the gluten free (gluten free?) meals you and your family received.

Again 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…”

Now, I would have no problem with Delta telling us that they cannot accommodate a gluten-free meal. It would be disappointing, bordering on pathetic in this day and age, and most certainly backwards ... but it would be tolerable. What is NOT tolerable is to serve a product publicly identified (by the manufacturer!) as containing gluten in a meal that is clearly labeled Gloten Free.

There are no nuances in this situation. This is not about whether it was gluten free enough. This product contained gluten and they gave it to us and told us it did not. Am I missing something?

I can’t help thinking what would have happened if we were dealing with an anaphylactic allergy. My husband was sick for 3 days of a week-long vacation, but he survived the ordeal. Imagine how much worse it could have been! Imagine if they had handed us peanuts and told us they were almonds. Would they be responsible then?

We teach our kids that when they make a mistake they should own it, take responsibility for their impact, and make corrections when possible. Mistakes are normal, they are how we learn. Making the same mistake twice with no effort to change?  Well, that’s just plain foolishness.

Delta’s policy around food allergies and sensitivities falls in the category of foolishness.  We were 2 hours delayed on another flight on that same vacation, and Delta sent a proactive letter of apology to all passengers on the plane with frequent flier points. But for this? They will not own their mistake, much less apologize, or make corrections.

As for the Customer Service chain of command? I suspect the “Buck Stops Here” stopped a long way before it got to Richard Anderson. In fact, our emails directly to him and his office remain unanswered. As I said, I am a loyalist, so I still want to hope that if Richard Anderson DID know what was happening, he would do something to change it. I still want to be proud of Delta.

So, do us all a favor. Send this blog to Richard Anderson at Delta Airlines.  Send it to your friends and ask THEM to send it, too.  After all, don’t we deserve to feel safe when a “Gluten Free” meal is handed to us?

Elaine Taylor-Klaus is a writer, a coach and the founder of ImpactADHD.com, a parent-coaching content site offering coaching and training support for parents of kids with ADHD. She is a regular columnist on ShareWIK.com, and a contributing writer for Living Without magazine.

Her household has been gluten free for nearly 8 years.

Reader Comments (21)

Do you have a link to Richard Anderson's email or Delta's website?

Sun, 22 046 12 | Unregistered CommenterJoy

Wow. As a skymiles member I am going to take this into serious consideration in the future. I was just looking for flights to London from NYC so thank you for sharing.

Mon, 23 059 12 | Unregistered CommenterWOW

Funny, a similar incident happened to me about 10 years ago on Delta. We were flying from New York to Orlando. I ordered my gf meal (they still had meals on domestics flights then). I got a pathetic excuse of an orange on my plate and a small package of Pepperidge Farm cookies. I tried to explain to the flight attendant why I couldn't eat this, but she didn't seem to understand. After seeing their reaction to your complaint, I'm glad I didn't waste my time with them. And I haven't flown Delta since, even though nobody serves meals on domestic flights anymore.

Mon, 23 013 12 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Andes

I had largely the same experience... although I didn't raise it to the flight crew, as I figure they didn't know any better since they kept trying to serve me bread during the flight. I emailed Delta, and got a response claiming no error, and referring to their cereal choice being low enough in gluten for 'most' people. I referred them to documentation otherwise on the web, and reminded them that I was a Diamond level flier, and they came back with frequent flier miles.

Since then, I don't really count on getting anything to eat on international flights, even in business class.

Mon, 23 021 12 | Unregistered CommenterAT

I sent a response to Richard.anderson@delta.com@delta.com, but it came back. Is there a better address to send it to?

Mon, 23 050 12 | Unregistered CommenterLaura Cimmino

What I find funniest about pretty much all airlines (and to a large extent, airports) understanding gluten-free food needs... the people who started GoPicnic? Used to work for United when they started selling food on board for flights with no meal service. Forgot trusting any food on the plane... I always pick up a few GoPicnic meals for any time in an airport/airplane. If they get it, they can get my money.

Mon, 23 058 12 | Unregistered CommenterVictoria

e-mail for Richard Anderson is: richard.anderson@delta.com

as per this website: http://onyoursi.de/wiki/airline/delta-air-lines/

Mon, 23 020 12 | Unregistered CommenterCarolynn

As severly gluten intolerant person with most of my 7 children gluten free too, I never trust anyone else with my food. I always carry food with me. No matter what I always read the labels. It is just good practice to not trust that others are gonna get it right. I think if a company is gonna offer it thy need to do it correctly but even still, I always check just in case. My reactions are bad enough that I have to look out for myself. :)

Mon, 23 023 12 | Unregistered CommenterSunnie

This same thing happened to me on an international flight. Luckily I knew that the cereal wasn't gluten free. On another flight, my connection was tight and by the time I got to my gate, I was one of the last ones on. I was seated in a bulkhead row and the overhead storage was taken. When I couldn't fit my backpack the flight attendant told me that I would have to check it all the way through to Tel Aviv. When I told her that I couldn't possibly check it because it contained my gluten free food (a prescription diet for my autoimmune disease) she asked me if I would like to step out on the jet bridge and have a discussion while I waited for my next flight. Are you kidding me?!! Unbelievable!

Mon, 23 022 12 | Unregistered CommenterE B

I had a similar experience on a Delta flight TO Dublin this past December. A roll that was included with my gluten-free tray (sans ingredients) was also included with the non-gluten free meals, where it DID have an ingredient list--a wheat roll!
The flight coming back from Dublin had a gluten free bread roll and delicious gluten free cookies. The UK is lightyears ahead of the US in terms of "getting it".

Mon, 23 021 12 | Unregistered CommenterKate

I sent a response to Richard.anderson@delta.com, and it seems to have gone through.

Mon, 23 052 12 | Unregistered CommenterCourtney

After the Terrible experiences I've had on delta regarding my child's peanut and tree nut allergy, I don't fly Delta. I've been yelled at by the gate agent in front of my anaphylactic child over the food allergy and our seats. I have Celiac. I pack all of my food when I fly. I havent found an airline worth trusting yet. Any recommendations for international carriers that are good with allergies and GF?

Mon, 23 041 12 | Unregistered CommenterKelly

I just received this response from the email I sent, with a link to your blog, to Richard.anderson@delta.com

"Thank you for your correspondence to our Chief Executive Officer, Richard Anderson. I have been asked to respond on his behalf. Please accept my apology for your special meal concerns.

We value customer feedback and appreciate you taking the time to contact us regarding our gluten free meals. We understand your feelings surrounding this issue and we are grateful you took the time to let us know how this affects you. Your concerns have been reported to the appropriate leadership for their internal review.

Thank you for sharing your meal concerns. We appreciate your interest in our company and hope to serve your travel needs in the future.

Coordinator, Corporate Customer Care
Delta Air Lines"

Tue, 24 025 12 | Unregistered CommenterCourtney

I went through this in 1994 with United Airlines. I was the flyer at that time, for a span of 6 years, who ordered the most GF meals each year. It takes persistance to get through. Unfortunately e-mail and social media was not so prevelant in those days and after MANY meal issues where the purser said the same thing to you as they said to me and I also reported to customer service and received similar replies, it came to a head one day when I realised I had eaten orzo pasta that has been substituted for the white rice is when I got action. I told the flight attendant to hold onto my 3/4 eaten meal and that I wanted a Cara (flight kitchen) manager/supervisor to meet the flight as I had just eaten something I think I was allergic to. Those were the days when travelling we used allergic instead of gluten free as no one understood what gluten free really meant as indicated by the substitutions I often received. I also told them that I was a Canadian travelling in the USA and they were responsible for my health care if I got sicker during the weekend, prior to my next United flight, which also seemed to get some action too. Cara met the plane and confirmed the pasta substitution. United called me on the Saturday to confirm how I was feeling and on the Monday I had a voice mail from the Presidents Office indicating they had answered all my complaints (which they had found after I listed them to the agent on the Saturday - I had recorded them in my travel records) in a letter to my business address. They also provided me with an 800 number to call if I had any problems with my meals in the future and they invited me to participate in the re-design of the United GFML, which was pulled from the flight kitchens as created at a central commissary and sent out to flight kitchens only to be warmed for flights however not to be made there so no substitutions could happen. They used the same protocol as other "allergies" and "religious" meals. I even got invited to a local flight kitchen to taste test both the baggage (economy) and business class meals - which was a truly bizzare experience seeing how big those kitchens were at that time and the volume they processed. I then flew safe with GFML's until United discontinued them on the domestic and transborder flights. I was really happy when they chose to include a GF product to purchase on their planes - Air Canada did not do that! I am surprised though to hear that Delta is still providing meals in flight - I thought all airlines had discontinued inflight meals within the USA/Canada and transborder. Good luck on your mission - there definately is a precident out there as United went through it over 15 years ago with me.

Wed, 25 015 12 | Unregistered CommenterLynda

Thank you for bringing this situation to our attention. Please know that we are sensitive to our passengers who have specific dietary needs and apologize for the discomfort and inconveniences you encountered.

We have the privilege of serving many passengers from around the world. Some of our passengers have dietary needs based on medical issues, and others based on religious or cultural requirements. We recognize that you had specifically requested a gluten free meal for you and your individual family members based upon your own medical needs. I understand your breakfast meal contained corn flakes instead of the gluten free option of a rice cake. From our information it became apparent that our caterer made a mistake and did not board the correct menu specifications for the gluten free meal. We are committed to providing you and all of our customers the highest standard of service in the industry, and we sincerely apologize for the catering error you experienced with the gluten free meals.

Your experience is particularly discouraging because our menu team recognizes the importance of ensuring that all Special Meals are designed to comply with specific dietary requirements and our menu specifications for gluten free meals do not include gluten. We apologize again for any distress this caused you and your family. In addition to following up with the caterer on their error, we will explore our menu specification for gluten free meals to make them more appealing.

Lastly, members of our Executive Leadership team have thoroughly read your correspondence and analyzed and recorded the details of your concerns and your experience. The apology we have offered is most sincere and we sympathize with the discomfort you experienced.

Ashley Black
Delta Air Lines
Corporate Communications

Thu, 26 030 12 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

For those following the progress of this blog, here is the Facebook post that accompanied this blog. (There are comments in that thread that do not appear here.)

I did post Delta's response (above) to the facebook thread.

Fri, 27 006 12 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Taylor-Klaus

The woman in Richard Anderson's office did move this along to Corporate Communications (the only folk permitted to respond publicly), as promised. Thanks, SC! As you can see in Ashley Black's response above, Delta did apologize publicly for the in-flight failure. Good first step. Thanks, Delta.

Fri, 27 016 12 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Taylor-Klaus

However, they did not address the abysmal Customer Service failure. More on that to come ...

Fri, 27 016 12 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Taylor-Klaus


I'm so sorry that this happened to your and your husband. I flew Delta in December and had NO SUCH troubles. I've been diagnosed for almost 3 years and was THRILLED to find out that there was a GF meal option for my 12 hour flight. Granted, it wasn't the best meal I'd ever eaten but it was safe and filling.

I have to say, I TOTALLY understand your frustration. But, having said that, I also have to say, I always carry safe foods with me, especially when I'll be away from home. I have to wonder why you or your husband did not do this on your trip. I realize that you were expecting safe food, but I've learned NEVER to rely on others in this arena. I also have to wonder why your husband didn't read the ingredients before consuming the cereal? Please know that I don't mean to sound accusatory, there may be a very valid reason, but this seems like an important first step for any Celiac before eating any packaged meal. I hate to sound like so many people who irritate the crap out of me in conversations like this but where does personal responsibility come into play?

Finally, I COMMEND Delta for their apology and for offering Sky Miles. It seems that too many corporations try to brush aside problems. Delta did the only thing they could have done, they apologized and offered some sort of restitution. AND their employees offered immediate assistance (and compassion), according to your account anyway.

I wonder what it is you would have liked them to do? Unfortunately mistakes happen. This one does not seem like malicious negligence but rather an oversight on the part of a contracted partner.

I know this will not be a very popular response, but I appreciate anyone who has read this far. And I appreciate the opportunity to voice my opinion.

Thank you!

Fri, 18 051 12 | Unregistered CommenterJust Sayin'

I always seem to find something helpful on your blog. This post is one of my favorites.

Tue, 19 000 12 | Unregistered CommenterFood coach

Looks like Delta is having food-related problems again: Needles in sandwiches on multiple international flights.

Delta is back to blaming the caterer (Gate Gourmet) rather than owning the problem themselves. I'm seeing a pattern. You?


Tue, 17 015 12 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Taylor-Klaus
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