THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Police at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport have opened a criminal investigation into how needles got into turkey sandwiches served to passengers on Delta Air Lines flights from Amsterdam to the United States, a spokesman said Tuesday. The FBI also is investigating the incidents.
Delta said what appear to be sewing needles were found in five sandwiches on Sunday. One passenger on a flight to Minneapolis was injured. The other needles were on two flights to Atlanta and one to Seattle.
"We are keeping all options open because at this moment we have no idea why somebody or something put needles inside the sandwiches so that is what we have to investigate," airport police spokesman Robert van Kapel told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
The sandwiches were made in the Amsterdam kitchen of catering company Gate Gourmet. The company's listed address in the Netherlands is in the Schiphol area, where the Dutch capital's airport is based.
Tjitte Mastenbroek, a spokesman for the Dutch government's Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority, said the agency also was investigating "from a food safety point of view." He said the agency would share its findings with the criminal investigation. He declined to give more detail, citing the ongoing investigation.
Gate Gourmet's website calls the company "the world's largest independent provider of catering and provisioning services for airlines and railroads," with 122 flight kitchens serving 250 million meals each year and 9,700 flights per day. The company was founded in 1992 to cater Swissair flights and grew by taking over other airline caterers including that of British Airways. It went into private ownership in 2003 and was listed on the Swiss SIX Exchange in 2009.
The company issued a statement Monday saying, "We take this matter very seriously, and we have launched our own full-scale investigation." It also said it was "heightening our already stringent safety and security procedures, to prevent any recurrence."
The company also said it is "treating this as a criminal act" and stressed it is "cooperating fully with investigations by local and federal authorities and by our customer."
Dutch authorities have no indication the incident is linked to terrorism and Van Kapel said he had no information on whether there had been any blackmail threats made to the airline or catering company.
The FBI said its Atlanta office has opened a criminal investigation.
Passenger Jim Tonjes of Plymouth, Minnesota, says he thought he bit into a toothpick. He thought maybe there was a toothpick holding his turkey sandwich together, before pulling a sewing needle out of his mouth.
"Well, you're biting into a sandwich, normally eating a sandwich, and all of a sudden, it's like, 'wow! What is that?' cause it went right into the top of my mouth," he said. "And people say, 'what did it feel like?' It's just like getting a shot in your arm. That was what it was like."
The needle punctured the roof of his mouth. He's now taking strong medicine to fight a possible viral infection, in case the needle was laced with something. Federal agents and local police interviewed him for three hours once he landed in the Twin Cities.
"That's what the FBI kept telling us: 'we have to keep telling you this is very, very serious. We're treating this as a terrorist action,'" he said.
Delta spokeswoman Kristin Baur said Monday that flight attendants stopped serving the sandwiches as soon as the needle was discovered. Messages went out to other flights en route from Amsterdam. Another sandwich served on the Minneapolis-bound flight also had a needle, Baur said.
After the needles were found, passengers got pizza instead.
Baur said security for its meal production has been increased and it is using more prepackaged food while the investigation continues.
"Delta is taking this matter extremely seriously and is cooperating with local and federal authorities who are investigating the incident. Delta has taken immediate action with our in-flight caterer at Amsterdam to ensure the safety and quality of the food we provide onboard our aircraft," the airline said in a written statement.
Benno Baksteen, a former Dutch pilot and aviation safety expert, said food is transported to aircraft amid tight security, "for obvious reasons — because people can hide stuff in catering trolleys."
He said trolleys carrying prepared airline food are sealed in transport, "so the most likely place where it could have happened would be in the place where it's manufactured or of course before it's served, once the trolleys are opened."
Schiphol airport staff referred questions about security surrounding catering companies to the Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice, which oversees aviation security. A spokesman at the ministry was not immediately available for comment.
Ton Scherrenberg, chairman of the VNC union that represents some 7,000 Dutch cabin personnel, told AP that cabin crew check food trolleys for foreign objects when they open them on board aircraft, "but you can't check every single sandwich."
He said he knew of no other such incidents at Schiphol in the past.
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