Crew Welfare: Food for thought

A seafarer who eats healthily and eats well is more alert – which means a safer ship, and, in turn, less likelihood of accidents and insurance claims. 

It might be easy to dismiss all that as myth or assumption. But Christian Ioannou, Managing Director of Marine Catering Training Consultancy (MCTC), said: “We recently upgraded our courses in collaboration with Steamship Mutual
(a Protection & Indemnity Club). They are very keen on protecting the crews on the ships they insure and that very much fits in with the aim of reducing P&I claims. Clients have told us that they have observed a reduction of P&I claims in their fleet because their seafarers are eating properly and are more alert and motivated.”

The importance of a good standard of food has risen up the agenda as a result of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), which requires that catering departments onboard should be sufficiently trained and educated to provide the crew with a wholesome, balanced meal.

That has long been a basic premise at MCTC: “However, we believe that catering crews should have a much deeper level of knowledge, to ensure they understand the importance of good nutrition and how to cater for different nationalities and health needs,” said Mr Ioannou.

But alongside the focus on healthy food is another very important issue – health and safety for the catering team themselves. Onboard catering often means working in restricted spaces and within significant time pressures, with the obvious risk of accidents.

“Our courses include safety in the galley, where we teach the catering teams to prevent any potential hazards from becoming real,” he said. “We focus on how to avoid and how to handle burns; how to operate the oven properly; how to cut safely and how to store utensils and knives correctly; and the importance of wearing the correct uniform and safety shoes.

“I am a chef myself and during my career I have seen quite a few accidents that can happen in any kitchen, whether it’s a hotel or a ship. For example, a colleague decided to clean up the fryer, but didn’t wait until the oil had cooled down. He slipped and his whole arm went into the hot oil.”

There is pressure and expectation in any professional kitchen, says Mr Ioannou, and staff need to be aware of all the potential risks and ensure they understand and follow the correct procedures, even if sometimes they feel tempted to cut corners to save time.

“Our challenge is that ships’ catering staff are not only responsible for cooking but they are also the managers who need to know about budgeting, ordering and inventory control, as well as storing, planning and cooking. There might be 10 different departments covering catering on a cruise ship – but on a merchant ship, these will probably be covered by a single person. Ships’ cooks need to know everything about managing the kitchen, and that is a considerable pressure.”

Lack of time throws up the same risks in any kitchen, he said. “The most common accidents are cuts and burns, but these can be avoided. One step we are taking is trying to change the mentality of a number of Asian nationalities, who tend to fry a lot of food. They can avoid frying by using the oven – that means they are not exposed to hot oil, and also the food is healthier.”

Food poisoning is another major risk which requires attention to detail. “We know of cases where companies have had food poisoning on their ships and spent as much as $75,000 on dealing with that. Food poisoning is often something owners don’t take very seriously, and yet it can happen so easily.”

MCTC courses include content on safety systems to ensure food is stored correctly, at the right temperatures, to ensure food is rotated so that it is consumed within the right dates, and to avoid cross-contamination. A food safety management campaign has been an important part of the drive for healthy food.

Mr Ioannou was one of the experts who provided advice in 2013 for the IMO’s guidelines on cooks training. “What we discussed is that vessels can’t be certified with a safety management system; however cooks need to be knowledgeable on all the principles, including knowing how to handle provisions, food supply, budgeting and consumption.”

MCTC, which is headquartered in Cyprus, carries out audits of its suppliers around the world: the target for 2018, he says, is to increase its portfolio of approved suppliers so clients’ vessels can take supplies onboard with confidence. 

“Health and safety are absolutely vital in catering onboard and the basis of everything we teach, whether onboard, at our shore training facilities in Manila, or in our distance learning programme,” said Mr Ioannou. “You can’t have onboard catering staff who don’t give the emphasis needed to ensure the crew have the correct nutrients. 

“Beyond training, one of our key services is communicating with catering staff onboard on a weekly basis, through email – highlighting what they should be cooking and what they should be paying attention to. We have also launched a new learning management system (LMS) platform this year, which will give onboard staff access to webinars and ongoing information and advice.”

MCTC’s galley management system (GMS) focuses on health, nutrition, catering processes and weekly menu management. Aimed at captains, cooks and clients, the GMS enables users to choose and adapt weekly menus; the system immediately provides the cost per person per day as well as the nutritional values. If, for example, the menu exceeds the recommended maximum of saturated fat, the user is alerted and will need to change the menus accordingly. Users will also be able to purchase provisions through the platform.

Of course, we are all familiar with nutrition/healthy eating experts’ advice that seems to change from week to week and that is another challenge.

“Regulatory bodies and associations do change the guidelines – for example, cholesterol guidelines recently changed and eggs are no longer considered ‘bad’,” said Mr Ioannou. “We keep crew informed through our newsletters.”

And perhaps unsurprisingly, MCTC’s approach reflects the fact that our grandmothers were right after all. “We focus on moderation in all things, cooking from scratch, avoiding fried items and not using ready/convenience foods,” said Mr Ioannou. “So it is about wellbeing, as well as the all-important cost.”