Friday, February 25, 2011
IS CRUISE SHIP FOOD SAFE TO EAT?
No, eating too much and putting on weight is not what you should worry most about on that cruise you are about to take. Worry instead about gastrointestinal illness, often originating in those mountains of food served.
But look on the bright side: if you do come down with a really bad bout of vomiting and diarrhea, you may even lose weight. Mind you, there is that unfortunate downside: I guess you wouldn't enjoy the cruise all that much if you spent half of it doubled over the "lu" throwing up, instead of sunning on deck, going to all those shows and playing bingo.
The statistics show that cruises are one of the most dangerous places to eat. And things are not improving in spite of special programs such as the US one operated by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) which inspect ships entering US ports for cleanliness (including of the food), employee hygiene, and collects statistics on the number of illnesses that have occurred on that trip.
I dug up CDC statistics on cruise-ship-based outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness. Let me tell you now, the news is not good. In the year 1999, only one outbreak was recorded on a cruise ship. 2000 and 2001 were pretty good too, with 5 and 4 outbreaks respectively. But during the last 9 years (2002 through 2010) there has been an average of 21.3 outbreaks in the cruise ships entering US ports, with all the major cruise lines involved, from the most expensive to the cheapest. In 2006 there were 33, and in 2004, 32. Some of these were repeats, in the sense that the same ship would have repeated problems, one cruise after another (more on this in another blog). This year - 2011 - is not off to a great start either, with a Celebrity Cruises ship (Celebrity Solstice) and a Royal Caribbean cruise ship (Radiance of the Seas) having outbreaks in January or early February.
And don't think it is just a case of a couple of people becoming ill and you won't be one of them. I haven't finished analyzing all the data yet, but the outbreaks I have looked at so far, show between 3% and 25% of passengers affected (plus a good number of the crew), and of course, as usual, these statistics are likely to be an underestimation, as not everyone who becomes will go to see the ship's doctor.
With a few exceptions, the cause of the illnesses has been Norovirus, which is sometimes called "the cruise ship virus." It is very, very contagious, and the most common way to catch it is from food, although it can be passed from one passenger to another and one crew member to another either directly or indirectly (e.g. through vomit spattered around). Usual symptoms are vomiting and diarrhea, and sometimes also a low-grade fever and headache - not exactly what you want on that long-anticipated cruise that you paid so much for and usually only lasts a few days anyway.