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Prevent foodborne bacteria from sickening crew and guests

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Recently, a friend on a yacht suffered a foodborne Illness. He toughed it out, thinking he had a stomach flu or virus of some sort. Needless to say, he did not go to the hospital where his yacht was docked. The next day, he wished he had because it was not any better. It took many days to get over the illness he felt.

As yacht chefs, we need to take special care with the produce and meats we buy in foreign countries. It is easy to feel secure in the U.S. or in Europe. We all have reputable stores where we buy needed provisions and the farm or provisioner that will ship what we need to us packed in ice.

But when we travel, we take chances with our health, the owner’s and guests’ health, and our crew’s health every time we buy local.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t do it. I just suggest we remember that not everyplace is as safe and secure as our homelands.

We chefs know the potential hazards of food handling, storage and preparation. The toxic or infectious agents that can make us sick often enter the body through the food we eat. The agents that cause us to get sick may have originated from the source — infected animals or growing facilities — but it can also come from the storage and delivery of those foods.

One of the most common items yacht chefs purchase in a foreign port is fruit. Too often, we think nothing of simply giving it a quick wash under the faucet and cutting into it. As the knife cuts through the exterior of the fruit, any troublesome bacteria on the skin is carried to the flesh inside.

One of the deadliest foodborne bacteria is listeria. It is not like foodborne pathogens that cause gastrointestinal discomfort such as diarrhea, nausea and cramps. Instead, listeria monocytogenes stays in the body. You may not even know you have it until it shows up as something else, such as meningitis or septicemia. A recent outbreak, which resulted in several deaths, was traced back to cantaloupes. Thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables before slicing them. And if cooking them, make sure they get to the proper temperatures.

Other forms of foodborne bacteria are e coli (recently found amid strawberries, spinach and lettuce), salmonella (on the skins of melons, papaya and other fruits, nuts, spinach and other greens), and staph bacteria (found in meat).

There are simply ways to prevent foodborne illnesses from affecting your yacht and crew. It just takes a moment and a little diligence, both of which can move to the back burner when we are pressed for time or hit with demands.

First, pay special attention to where you purchase your products. While it is fine to buy local ingredients, give these goods of questionable background a little extra care when preparing them.

Regardless of where you get your produce, wash them thoroughly. Use clean water and some sort of cleaner. You can make you own with a little dish detergent (preferably something organic) or a couple drops of bleach in a sink of cool water. Scrub them a bit, then rinse and dry.

This is especially true for fruits and vegetables, even when you don’t eat the skin. Any bacteria on the outside gets spread to the inside when they get sliced. How many times have we seen a man down island slicing fruit with a machete? Think again before you eat it.

Cook your meats on a high heat to destroy any bacteria.

Feel comfortable with the person or store selling you your meat. When in doubt, don’t buy it. If the meat does not look fresh, bright in natural color, don’t touch it. Have you ever been approached by that guy selling meat out of his cooler, claiming some big yacht changed its travel plans and didn’t need it? Stay far away from that guy, and anyone else you don’t feel confident about.

And finally, notice the ice on items stored in freezers in stores or in trucks, especially in a foreign country. Ice crystals indicates time-temperature abuse, or maybe that the item had too much moisture on it when it was packaged. Not only will that affect taste, it could harbor some nasty bacteria that could make sick the people who trust you with their food and health.

Mary Beth Lawton Johnson is a certified executive pastry chef and Chef de Cuisine and has worked on yachts for more than 25 years. Comments on this column are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com.

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