Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Food safety in action

At least I didn’t bring a camera into the bathroom. But the thought did cross my mind. After covering norovirus outbreaks in restaurants since the near-epidemic of 2007, I was eager to see how cruise ships combat the flu-causing pathogen. They, after all, were the hospitality sector that made the germ famous, and have a lead of at least a decade in figuring out how to avert or contain an outbreak. As any newspaper reader knows, they’ve had ample practice.

A cruise-line executive detailed a few of the preventive measures at a conference back in the fall of ’07, still known to some food-safety geeks as the Year of the Virus.

The speaker cited such practices as having room service kitchens alert Guest Relations if a passenger asks for bullion, custard or other easy-on-the-stomach fare. A cancelled spa appointment might also prompt a check with the guest. Similarly, room attendants are trained to alert superiors if they find a guest bedded down and complaining of flu-like symptoms.

Earlier today I witnessed that latter safeguard in action. An attendant was at the door, delicately questioning a young woman about why she was in bed and sleeping at 6:30. “Are you not feeling well?” she probed. “I’m sorry to wake you, but is everything all right?”

A fellow traveler noted that the on-board store has a sign near the toiletries, urging passengers to let ship authorities know if they’re in need of upset-stomach or diarrhea remedies. Each day’s listing of activities, a printed bulletin provided the night before to every stateroom, urges guests to wash their hands after each trip to the bathroom and before any meal. People beset with stomach ailments are directed to seek consultation with on-board officials.

Plenty of other precautions are taken to stop germs from being passed from surfaces to passenger’s hands. Signs in the bathrooms encourage guests, not staff, to wash their hands. And some public bathrooms feature a paper towel dispenser on the exit door. You can readily figure out that you’re supposed to use one of the towels to shield your hands from contamination when opening the door. Then you dispose of the towel in a receptacle on the back of the door.

Curiously, fellow travelers noted that the hand sanitizing stations they found on earlier cruises have been removed. One recounted how she read that passengers were lulled into a false sense of security by the gel that was dispensed. It’s a bacterial agent, not anything that can kill viruses.

In their place are signs encouraging passengers to wash their hands. I’d take a picture but—well, you know. I don’t want to be labeled a germ geek.

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