Food & Wine

Food Safety: What’s in Your Dinner?

15 February 2021 By Kate Lardy
stomach in bacteria illustration

Kate got her start in the yachting industry working as crew. She spent five years cruising the Bahamas, Caribbean, New England, and Central America, then segued that experience into a career in marine journalism, including stints as editor of Dockwalk and ShowBoats International.

The boss had just departed after a lengthy stay on board and the crew of M/Y Let Loose were beyond ready for a good night out. After dinner off the boat, courtesy of the owner — thank you very much — the crew continued the party with dancing into the wee hours. Back on board, a few of the more hardcore night owls weren’t quite ready for the fun to end. One remembered that the chef kept a stash of chilled vodka in the galley freezer and decided to requisition it for nightcap vodkatinis on the foredeck under the stars. Unfortunately in his inebriated state, he wasn’t particularly meticulous with the freezer door when he made off with his newfound treasure.

The next day — none too early as it was a day off — another crewmember noticed the freezer door ajar and shut it. Being a bit sluggish after the night out, he did not notice the digital temperature reading: 6°C. After a relaxing day off for all, it was back to work as usual the following day, which the chef began by pulling out some chicken breasts to defrost for dinner. A couple hours after the ill-fated meal, the entire crew abruptly came down with some very dramatic and unpleasant gastrointestinal issues.

Insufficiently cooked foods, particularly runny eggs, carry a risk of contamination, and food that is left out too long in warm air is a breeding ground for the bacteria. 

There are a slew of ways a yacht chef can inadvertently inflict food poisoning on the crew or guests. Refrigerator or freezer malfunction is only one. “As a chef I always made sure I took very good care of my engineers,” jokes industry veteran Beverly Grant, who worked as a yacht and private chef for more than two decades and now runs Crew Solutions, a crew placement agency, as well as Coastal Domestic Staffing out of Fort Pierce, Florida, a training and placement service for chefs and other service staff for private residences.

She suggests hanging an extra thermometer in each walk-in as a backup to the main temperature display. In the case of a known outage, the old adage “better safe than sorry” applies. “You need to go through the whole refrigerator and check your products; if there is any question at all, throw it out,” she says.

Food handling is another area where a slipup can occur. On MLC-compliant yachts, anyone involved with food on board, including servers, have to be certified in food safety, and companies like bluewater, MPT, and Secrets de Cuisine offer MCA-approved courses in this. Certain foods have a short shelf life when left out, like mayonnaise products and meat and fish that are not thoroughly cooked. And it’s vitally important to clean wooden and plastic cutting boards very well and always use a separate, dedicated one for chicken, Grant says. “I just use straight-up isopropyl alcohol; it’s the best thing to clean. Even before COVID, I’ve always had a spray can of alcohol.”

When it comes to provisioning, Grant recommends that if time permits, chefs do their own shopping rather than using a service in order to get the best supplies and be able to change up the menu on the fly if an ingredient looks good or not that day. In general, chicken and fish are more prone to contamination than meat. “When I was traveling in out-of-the-way places, like Thailand and Turkey,  I would go straight to the fishermen and get the freshly caught fish,” Grant says.

She says to trust your senses when shopping, namely sight, smell, and touch. “Sometimes people look at me like I’m crazy, but at a market, I would say ‘can you just hold it over here so I can smell it?’ I have a good nose… There are also certain colors to look out for, and if you can touch the meat and feel any slime, you know it’s bad.”

Unfortunately, ciguatera fish poisoning can sneak up on any chef. There is no way to detect whether a fish has ciguatoxin. It accumulates in predator fish that eat smaller reef fish that have consumed algae containing the naturally occurring marine toxin. And there is no cooking or freezing method that will make the fish safe. It’s a particularly nasty illness that causes gastrointestinal symptoms and occasionally neurological ones as well. For the very unlucky, it may last much longer than typical food poisoning and can recur for months, even years. Large predatory reef fish are the most vulnerable but even pelagic fish like tuna have been found with it. The best a chef can do is stay informed about whether any ciguatera has been reported locally and always avoid barracuda and moray eel, the highest risk fish. The Florida Health Department adds, “For all reef fish, never eat the liver, intestines, roe, and head — the highest concentrations of toxin have been found in these tissues.”

Another one to keep a lookout for is salmonella, bacteria that affects a wide variety of foods and causes a million cases of food poisoning in the U.S. alone each year, estimates the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Like ciguatera, it is not identifiable by sight, smell, or taste, but unlike ciguatera, cooking does kill it. Insufficiently cooked foods, particularly runny eggs, carry a risk of contamination, and food that is left out too long in warm air is a breeding ground for the bacteria. Widespread outbreaks concerning a particular food are normally reported in the news, so once again staying informed is key.

This column is taken from the February 2021 issue of Dockwalk.


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