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Crew battle germs as course gains attention

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Stew Jayne Thomas’s job onboard a 150-foot plus yacht now takes more time, but she said it’s worth it. Just one crew rushing back to work with unwashed hands from the bathroom, a trace of insect or rat feces on food from the market or a kitchen towel used to clean a spill on the floor can spread bacteria.

Thomas recently learned about these ways foodborne illnesses can be spread during a food safety course required by MSN 1846 under the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), 2006.

“We haven’t had sickness or an outbreak on our boat, but it definitely happens in yachting,” Thomas said. “Most stews are neat freaks already because of their job, but the whole course was fascinating. I thought it didn’t pertain to me because I don’t cook onboard, but when I learned how things are transmitted, it does.”

After a trip to the grocery store, Thomas transfers food into plastic bags and bins straight from the car to leave potentially bug-laden cardboard off the boat. She wipes each item as it goes into the cabinet, loads meats according to “swim, walk, fly” order and checks expiration dates. She has different color tea towels for the galley, the crew mess and for under the sink. And she changes them out frequently.

“We antibac the rails and walls two to three times a day,” Thomas said. “Those are areas that everyone touches. And now I wash my hands even more often.”

The Food Service, Safety and Hygiene course helps crew understand the risks and transmission associated with foodborne illnesses, said Carmen Foy of Crew Food Safety Training in Ft. Lauderdale. The course covers food contamination, personal hygiene, food storage temperatures, contamination of equipment, safe cooking temperatures and the purchasing of food from safe sources.

Stew Jayne Thomas, Chief stew Michelle "True" Trueblood, Stew Sarah McFarlane and Chef Sherry Ellis demonstrate proper handwashing after a recent Food Safety course. PHOTO/DORIE COX

Stew Jayne Thomas, Chief stew Michelle “True” Trueblood, Stew Sarah McFarlane and Chef Sherry Ellis demonstrate proper handwashing after a recent Food Safety course. PHOTO/DORIE COX

Many crew are unclear if they need the course, but captains and crew are asking a lot of questions, said Liam Dobbin, managing director of Wilsonhalligan Large Yacht Recruitment in the UK.

“This is a hot topic and we’ve had to do a lot of reading around this,” Dobbin said.

Kathryn Bosman works with Dobbin as interior recruitment consultant and places the types of crew who need this training.

“It has been touched on, but so far it’s not like the STCW,” Bosman said. “It hasn’t gotten to the point that yachts say, ‘our crew must have it’.”

But many crew [ital]do[/ital] need to take it. Crew on MLC-compliant yachts who handle food are required to adhere to the Food Safety annex of MSN 1846 The requirement has two parts. The first annex requires food-handlers to have a course and be tested in person for food safety. Annex II requires ships cooks to be certified.

Annex I applies to all crew whose duties involve food handling of any sort, including serving, clearing meals, stocking food, unwrapping, plating and even preparing sandwiches or packing lunches.

“If you touch a plate that serves food, then you need to have the Food Safety and Hygiene certificate,” said Brian Luke, chief operations officer of International Crew Training (ICT) in Ft. Lauderdale. “Marine notices only apply to UK vessels. Other red flags follow closely but don’t have to follow directly.

“However, MLC applies to every vessel with very few exceptions,” he said. “Within MLC is the requirement that anyone handling food is required to have a Food Safety and Hygiene certificate. Clearly, stews’ handle food daily.”

Joey Meen is director of training and certification with the Professional Yachting Association (PYA) and said although required, the training requirement is a growing topic of conversation.

“Most UK maritime colleges offer the food safety courses, as all other [UK maritime] sectors, which have been adhering to this for years,” Meen said by e-mail. “It has, in fact, been a requirement all along. The yachting sector has not paid much attention to it.

“Food safety is a requirement for all crew handling food, including loading stores,” she said. “It is being enforced in Europe; don’t know about the U.S.”

Approved online courses are acceptable, but online assessment is not, she said. Crew need to go in person to an assessment center after completing an online course.

Ann Aylesworth, admissions and corporate accounts manager at Maritime Professional Training (MPT) in Ft. Lauderdale, said that many flagged boats are enforcing the rule.

“Anyone who passes food; if it’s a big gala and all hands are at work, they all need the certificate,” Aylesworth said. “This can affect all crew. On bigger boats where jobs are more compartmentalized, maybe not all crew. But on the smaller boats, it very well could affect more crew.”

Foy has taught crew other than stews, including deckhands and engineers, at MPT and ICT in Ft. Lauderdale. An engineer brought a great perspective to the class with regard to water treatment and refrigeration. He offered insight on the proper maintenance for temperatures of refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, dryers and washing machines; all vital to preventing and killing bacteria, Foy said.

The course has made a difference for veteran Chief Stew Michelle “True” Trueblood.

“I look at my responsibility differently after seeing that 70 percent of cases of food poisoning cases happen during preparation,” Trueblood said recently after she took the course. “One small thing can make you sick, but one small thing can prevent sickness.”

Sharing and enforcing what she learned in the course with everyone onboard is a challenge, she said. She’ll bring up topics as the crew sit together in the morning and at lunch.

“I thought it would be better to bring up some of the safety topics in casual conversation so it didn’t seem like I was preaching at the crew about some needed changes,” she said. “Everyone needs to take this class, including the captains, because they are the ones that can implement this. What’s fours hours of class for a lifetime of good safety habits?”

“With the boys, I gave the shock tactic,” Thomas said of teaching her crew. “One of the easiest ways to transport bacteria is just between servers. It doesn’t even have to grow on food. Fecal-to-oral cross-contamination is the biggest reason for foodborne illness in service.”

One deck crew, who preferred not to be named to protect the reputation of his former yacht and chef, can vouch for that. He suffered E. coli while onboard years ago and was so sick he vomited blood during an Atlantic crossing.

“Our chef didn’t wash his hands and he didn’t properly wrap and store foods,” the deckhand said by phone. “I started getting real sick. I learned basic hygiene gets overlooked at times.”

Dorie Cox is associate editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at dorie@the-triton.com.

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