Cooks need training just like any other on-board position

Apr 10, 2008 12:00 AM

My first job in high school was at a local restaurant. To work there I needed a doctor’s note stating that I didn’t have any communicable diseases; then I had to take a food safety course and pass a written test before getting my “food worker’s card” issued by the county department of health. Initially I washed dishes, but after a few months, started apprenticing with the regular cook. Later the manager promoted me to the assistant cook position. By the time I left the job, I was well grounded in preparing good, basic food in accordance with established health standards.

The training I had as a high school student working in a pancake house 33 years ago is more than the Coast Guard mandates for someone doing the cooking on a commercial vessel today. The only thing the Coast Guard deems necessary to cook on board a merchant vessel is a food handler’s endorsement on a z-card, and all you need for that is a doctor’s exam stating that you are free of communicable diseases (46 CFR 12.25-20). Because there are no Coast Guard competency standards for those doing the cooking on merchant vessels, in my experience, there are people making meals who are marginally proficient a best — and possibly dangerous to the health of the crew and any passengers on board.

Not long ago I worked as a relief chief mate on an oceanographic ship based in the Pacific Northwest. On one trip about 25 percent of the crew, including some scientists and myself, came down with food poisoning. As medical officer, I looked into the problem and found that the chief steward often kept leftovers for weeks before reusing them, placed juice out for breakfast that was months past its expiration date and served rancid potato chips with lunch. When the captain and I confronted him about these unsafe food-handling practices, the steward laughed and replied, “What’s the problem? Diarrhea cleans out your pipes.”

I was shocked to hear that. From my perspective as chief mate and medical officer, this was a matter of ship’s safety. In fact, I considered us lucky that no one had collapsed from dehydration or that we didn’t have to rely on an AB weak and sick from food poisoning to help fight a fire or launch a life raft.

There’s a disturbing trend among certain tug and supply boat operators that I think is even worse than having an untrained cook on board — and that’s having no cook at all. A close friend of mine works on an articulated tug/barge. All 10 crewmembers, including the captain, must take turns doing the cooking. This doubling-up of shipboard positions is unprofessional in my opinion, not only because it cuts U.S. mariners out of cook’s jobs, but also because it shows that these companies don’t seem to care about the quality of the food their mariners are served. After all, the requirements for being an engineer, deck hand, or even a captain have absolutely nothing to do with knowing how to safely prepare healthy, good-tasting food.

A few years ago I was asked to cover the mate’s job on an oceangoing tug after the permanent mate was fired when he ran the boat and barge aground coming up the Columbia River. When repairs were completed at the dock, I agreed to do a trip and made the seven-hour journey from the island I live on near Seattle down to Portland, Ore.

I arrived around 1700, walking in as supper was being prepared. A guy in a greasy sweatshirt and blue jeans was chopping the dinner salad, paint flecks and rust chips in his hair. When we were introduced, he wiped his hand on his dirty shirt, then shook my hand.

I asked, “Are you the cook on board?” He replied, “We don’t have a cook. I’m the deck hand, but also do all the cooking.” I watched as he sniffled and coughed while flipping the hamburgers, and knew that for the next two weeks I’d be making myself a lot of sandwiches and bowls of cereal.

Thankfully, many U.S. companies, and the maritime unions, care about the quality of prepared food served on board their vessels. I sailed as a chief mate on an oceanographic ship operated by an outfit based in Massachusetts. That company required cooks to either have a degree from a culinary school or three years of documented cooking experience on other seagoing vessels. Some top-notch companies operating tugs and supply vessels in the Gulf of Mexico are now sending their cooks to a 28-day workboat cook’s training course offered through Sea School in Mobile, Ala. I’ve sailed on 12 ships manned by sailors from the Seafarers International Union (SIU), and have never seen nor heard of any food-related illnesses on them. Just to apprentice in the galley of a SIU-contracted ship, 40 hours of classes on sanitation and galley operations are required. To become a chief steward, 33 weeks of classes and two years of experience are needed.

In my opinion, before someone is allowed to do the cooking on board any U.S. merchant vessel, they should demonstrate competency in safe food practices, galley sanitation and the basics of food preparation. An instructional course and testing should be mandatory, with minimum proficiency standards established. I also feel that any inland or offshore vessel working a 24-hour-per-day schedule should be required to have a designated cook in the crew — someone whose sole job is handling all the galley responsibilities.

In recent years training and competency requirements have increased significantly for deck and engine officers, able seamen, and qualified members of the engine department — but not for cooks. I believe that it’s past time for the industry to recognize the vital role that cooks and stewards have in helping to maintain the health of the crew and in the smooth operation of the ship. While federal law mandates that the food companies provide for their crews be of decent quality, I also think that food should be prepared and cooked in accordance with established health standards.

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin’. Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@professionalmariner.com.

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