Sanitation fail! Cruise ships set sail with soiled kitchens, bugs and “potentially” hazardous food

Two cruise ships owned by Carnival Corp. have fallen afoul of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) inspectors, a rare failure for an industry that prides itself on its cleanliness.

Last month, the P&O Oceana flunked a sanitation inspection with a score of 82 out of 100. Health officials chided the cruise line for kitchens with soiled grout, insect remains and “potentially” hazardous food. A passing score is 85. The inspectors also shut down the Oceana’s swimming pool after a spot check found it had chlorine levels that were too low, the report said.

Only four other cruise ships have failed a CDC inspection since 2008.

In February, another P&O vessel, the Oriana received one of the lowest score of any P&O ship in six years. CDC inspectors wrote up a laundry list of problems. Among them: Utensils were stored unprotected in front of the temporary sneeze shield; and three live cockroaches, one adult and two nymphs, were observed in the two undercounter hot boxes underneath the grills in the galley. For this, the Oriana was awarded a score of 90.

P&O cruises, which is a unit of Carnival, said it was “extremely disappointed” in the result of the inspections. “We immediately rectified the areas identified as needing attention,” says Michele Andjel, a spokeswoman for the company.

But the reports paint a picture of that stands in sharp contrast to the cruise industry’s promise of a safe, secure and healthy cruise ship environment.

A spokeswoman for the Cruise Lines International Association, an industry trade group, said it is “keenly focused on keeping ships clean and safe.” It also fully cooperates with the CDC on all inspections.

“The process starts even before a ship leaves port, including screening of passengers for any illnesses they may have contracted on land,” said Elinore Boeke. “Passengers are also reminded to wash hands regularly, just as people should do on land, and hand sanitizers are located throughout a ship.”

Among the highlights of the reports:

  • A Chef de Partie, or line cook, experienced onset of gastrointestinal illnesses symptoms in January on the Oriana. The crew member worked from 7 a.m. to 11 am, took lunch at the crew mess, then returned to work from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m, according to the report. The crewmember reported his symptoms to the medical center at 6 p.m. Among the paper records of this case was a written reprimand for not reporting these symptoms immediately. Cruise lines are quick to blame passengers for gastrointestinal illnesses such as the Norovirus, but critics have long contended that unsanitary employees share some of the blame.
  • The Oceana experienced a problem with its cheese, with the temperature in one refrigerator as high as 50°F. The recommended temperature range for storing cheese is between 35°F and 45°F. One tray containing smoked Cheddar and Lester cheese measured 46°F and 44°F, and had to be discarded. The other cheeses in the unit were within temperature, and were transferred to another unit. Spoiled cheese can lead to food poisoning, which is not an uncommon complaint. Cruise lines tend to dismiss these grievances, but these results suggest the accounts may have some merit.
  • One of the starboard pantries on the Oceana had an insect infestation. Inspectors counted nine fruit flies on the seam to the deckhead above the preparation counter behind the beverage station. They recommended the cruise lines more effectively control the presence of insects, rodents, and other pests to minimize their presence in the food storage, preparation, and service areas and warewashing and utensil storage areas aboard a vessel.

P&O hasn’t submitted a corrective action report, a formal filing that outlines how it plans to fix the problems.

The health reports calls into question the cruise industry’s narrative, when it comes to the frequent Norovirus outbreaks, such as the one on the Diamond Princess last month in Australia, where 150 were stricken, and the Norwegian Gem in New York, where 135 passengers fell ill. March is considered the peak of high season for infectious diseases, but the cruise industry and its supporters have contended that unsanitary passengers — not employees — are the cause of the malaise.

It also raises questions about the industry’s squeaky-clean image, when it comes to cleanliness, suggesting that claims about food poisoning onboard may be legitimate, and indeed, that there may be more unreported cases that were either ignored by the cruise line or dismissed by the sickened passengers.

Observers are now left to wonder if the latest inspections signal a shift in the way the government handles unsanitary cruise ships. The CDC didn’t respond to questions about the P&O reports. But for years, rumors have circulated that cruise lines are tipped off prior to “surprise” health inspections.

The latest catch seems to suggest that authorities are playing it by the book. If that’s true, we should expect to see more cruise lines failing their health inspections.

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