A ship’s engine may run on fuel oil, but the crew runs on food. Like the engine’s fuel supply, the crew’s food must be safe and be of the right quality. The recent outbreak of listeriosis in South Africa, which has reportedly killed almost 200 people, serves as a timely reminder that prevention is better than cure when dealing with food safety.
Poor food safety management through improper storage, preparation and handling can result in food poisoning. As well as the problems this causes to the individual crew member, a severe outbreak on board could affect the safe operation a vessel.
Ships’ crews must be made aware of the steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of falling to foodborne illnesses.
Most cases of food poisoning on vessels are caused by bacteria. Even where there are good standards of hygiene and food safety practices on board, the crew are also at risk of eating contaminated food whilst ashore. Some of the more common illnesses are outlined below.
Caught from eating food containing the listeria bacteria, it is most often caused by eating contaminated ready-to-eat meat products and unpasteurised dairy products. Symptoms are flu-like and include high temperature, vomiting and diarrhoea. A healthy person typically does not need medical treatment and symptoms will usually go away within a few weeks.
Salmonella bacteria live in the gut of many farm animals; therefore salmonella is caught from eating contaminated eggs, poultry and other animal products. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, fever, headache and diarrhoea.
A bacterial infection caused mainly by the E. coli O157 strain, found in the gut and faeces of many animals, particularly cattle and sheep. Most often associated with fresh fruit and vegetables, undercooked meat and unpasteurised dairy products. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, fever, headache and diarrhoea.
Outbreaks of Cholera usually occur where there is poor sanitation. It is mostly caused by contaminated water and food including rice, vegetables and seafood. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pain which can result in severe dehydration.
Usually associated with cruise ships or densely populated buildings, Norovirus is a common stomach bug which usually clears within a few days. Typically spread by close contact with an infected person, touching contaminated surfaces or eating food that has been prepared by an infected food handler. Symptoms include nausea, extreme vomiting, watery diarrhoea and abdominal pain.
Practical Steps to Safer Food
Simple steps will help ensure food and water on board is safe and remains safe. This is particularly important for those preparing and handling food on a daily basis. The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued valuable advice on food safety and identified ‘five keys to safer food’. These can form the basis of a vessel’s food safety management system.
- “Keep clean”: wash your hands before handling food, during food preparation and after going to the toilet.
- “Separate raw and cooked”: store raw and cooked foods separately and use separate equipment, cutting boards and utensils.
- “Cook thoroughly”: especially meat, poultry, eggs and seafood. When reheating food do so thoroughly.
- “Keep food at safe temperatures”: avoid leaving foods at room temperature, refrigerate cold foods and cooked warm foods hot.
- “Use safe water and raw materials”: only use safe water, wash fruits and vegetables before eating and don’t use food beyond its expiry date.
If a crew member thinks they have become ill through food or water contamination, they must report it. They should keep hydrated and follow any medical advice given. It is important to determine what food and drinks they have taken so the source of the illness can be identified. Avoid contact with other crew and foodstuffs in order to contain the illness and prevent an outbreak.
The WHO’s poster ‘Five keys to safer food’ can be found here
Author: Holly Hughes