Seven Cardinal Food Safety Sins Crew Should Avoid

A professional kitchen with a frying pan on fire, with the words, Seven Cardinal Food Safety Sins Crew Should Avoid

The concept of the seven deadly sins, also known as the capital vices or cardinal sins, has its origins in the writings of Evagrius Ponticus, a Christian monk who was one of the most influential theologians in the late fourth-century. In a letter addressed to his fellow monks, Ponticus listed what he referred to as the “eight evil thoughts”—the principle temptations from which all sinful behavior emanates. In AD 590, St. Gregory the Great, who would later become Pope Gregory I, revised this list into the well-known version of seven cardinal sins recognized today: pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth.

In the context of food safety, certain behaviors and habits can compromise the safety and suitability of food served on board. Unlike those individuals guilty of a cardinal sin, minor errors by food handlers will not lead to eternal damnation. Nonetheless, there exists the potential to unknowingly introduce hazards, resulting in individual cases of illness, widespread disease outbreaks, or, in the worst-case scenario, loss of life.

In this article, we examine seven critical food safety sins and explain why food handlers must avoid committing them. As the popular idiom states, “the devil is in the details.” When it comes to food safety, it most certainly is.

Table of Contents

What is a Food Handler?

A food handler, or food employee, is any crew member who directly interacts with packaged or unpackaged food, food equipment and utensils, or food-contact surfaces. Food handlers may be engaged in food preparation, production, cooking, display, packing, storage, or service.

On a cruise ship, designated food handlers can be found in a variety of departments. Their roles range from crew responsible for loading food into a vessel’s provision storerooms to the chefs preparing meals; from galley utilities cleaning equipment and utensils to bartenders serving drinks; from housekeeping stewards tasked with room service duties to spa therapists arranging fruit bowls for guests to enjoy as they relax after treatment.

Regardless of their specific responsibilities, all crew members involved in food operations play a critical role in safeguarding the health and safety of everyone on board.

7 Things Food Handlers Shouldn’t Do

As a food handler, it’s essential to maintain rigorous personal hygiene standards and adhere to the food safety regulations outlined in a company’s policies and procedures. This helps prevent cross-contamination and the proliferation of harmful pathogens that can lead to foodborne illnesses and allergies.

By being mindful of your actions and avoiding behaviors that pose food safety risks, you not only protect your health, but also contribute to the well-being of your fellow crew members, passengers, and the reputation of the cruise line you serve.

Which, if any, of the following food handling sins are you guilty of?

1. Improper Handwashing

Make no mistake, hand hygiene is the cornerstone of all food safety initiatives. If food handlers neglect proper handwashing, it can compromise the precautions taken to minimize risks at all identified critical control points during food production and storage.

While the below list is not exhaustive, there are fundamental times when food handlers should wash their hands, including:

  • Immediately upon entering a food area
  • Before handling food
  • During food preparation as often as is necessary to keep hands clean and to prevent cross-contamination (e.g., when switching tasks, such as handling raw meat to working with ready-to-eat food)
  • After using the toilet
  • After touching their face, hair, or body
  • After smoking, eating, or drinking
  • After coughing, sneezing, or using a handkerchief
  • After handling soiled equipment and utensils
  • After handling waste or cleaning materials
  • Before putting on disposable gloves and between glove changes
  • After engaging in any other activities that could contaminate the hands

Upon entering a food area, a supervisor’s first action should be to wash their hands. This serves not only as a demonstration of leading by example, but also provides an opportunity to inspect the waste bins. If there are an insufficient number of paper towels inside, it generally indicates one of two things: either the bins have been recently emptied or crew aren’t washing their hands when they should.

One example of non-compliance with handwashing protocols that often goes unnoticed involves bar waiters serving drinks immediately after collecting used glassware, without washing their hands in between each task. While this may appear to be an inconsequential misdemeanor, it can result in cross-contamination, and during disease outbreaks in particular, be a contributing factor in the further transmission of illness.

2. Scrolling on the Job

Given the global pastime of scrolling through TikTok and Instagram videos while sitting on the toilet, it’s not surprising that mobile phones can be a reservoir for microbes (germs). Mobile phones are rarely cleaned, and even when they are, the cleaning process is often ineffective.

As fomites—inanimate objects that can transmit infectious agents such as bacteria or viruses by contact—mobile phones are ideal platforms for disease transmission. Consequently, many cruise lines have established protocols prohibiting their use in food areas on board. Nonetheless, it’s not uncommon for food handlers to have their phones with them while at work, so if you are going to break this cardinal food safety sin, be sure to wash your hands immediately after handling your phone.

Whatever delicacies you’ve evacuated down the toilet are definitely not on the vessel’s menu.

3. The Old Time Control Label Switcheroo

Potentially hazardous food (PHF) refers to specific foods that require precise temperature control to minimize the growth of pathogenic microorganisms or to prevent the formation of toxins. When perishable foods have been in the “Temperature Danger Zone”—generally considered to be between 4°C and 60°C (40°F to 140°F)—microorganisms can multiply rapidly, increasing the risk of foodborne illness.

On cruise vessels, ready-to-eat (RTE) potentially hazardous foods that have been removed from temperature control must be consumed or discarded within 4 hours; a practice known as Time Control. While there are other considerations, RTE PHF placed on time control must be individually labeled with a 4-hour discard time if the interval between service setup and closing exceeds 4 hours.

The 4-hour rule is derived from scientific modeling and experiments. Researchers analyzed worst-case scenarios to predict the growth of specific pathogens in food. Under optimal conditions, they found that certain bacteria can multiply and divide every 20 minutes. Consequently, a single bacterial cell can propagate to 16 million cells within an 8-hour period.

It’s imperative that PHF items are discarded when their 4-hour time limit is reached. The practice of replacing the original discard label with a new one, even if it’s just to cover one more hour of service, must not be condoned under any circumstances.

4. Unsafe Thawing Practices

Thawing food incorrectly is a common food safety mistake. Freezing doesn’t kill harmful microorganisms; it merely slows their growth or renders them dormant. Once the temperature rises, these dangerous pathogens begin to grow and multiply again, underscoring the importance of following safe thawing procedures. The safest way to thaw potentially hazardous foods is gradually, under refrigeration.

When PHF items are defrosted at room temperature, such as on a galley counter, it increases the risk of bacterial growth and foodborne illness. Thawing at ambient temperatures may cause parts of the food to thaw faster than others, potentially placing them in the temperature danger zone where bacteria proliferates rapidly.

Another frequent mistake is the routine practice of thawing frozen food under cold running water. While cruise ship public health guidelines, such as the CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program Operations Manual, may permit PHF items to be defrosted when submerged under running water, this method remains one of the least safest options due to the rationale outlined above.

Thawing under running water should be an exception, not a regular practice. Valid reasons for using this method include the unexpected high consumption of an item, menu changes, or late delivery from provisions due to loading delays.

If thawing PHF items under running water is a common practice in your galley, it’s time to review your planning processes.

5. Glove Misuse

Although single-use gloves are widely utilized in food handling processes, their benefits remain a subject of debate. Several studies, as discussed in our previous article on “Common Hand Hygiene Myths”, have highlighted that gloves can actually contribute to a higher incidence of cross-contamination.

While gloves provide a protective barrier, they don’t render hands immune to transmitting viruses and bacteria. Unfortunately, there’s often an overreliance on their use due to a false sense of security. It’s crucial to recognize that gloves don’t replace the need for frequent handwashing. When used correctly, gloves can help prevent cross-contamination, but their effectiveness relies on food handlers adhering to established hygiene protocols, such as frequent glove changes and handwashing in between.

However, gloves must be worn whenever handling ready-to-eat food—and that applies also to chefs working in upscale à la carte restaurants on board. Ready-to-eat items, which includes ice and garnishes in beverages, are those that won’t be cooked or reheated before serving, which makes them more susceptible to contamination. Alternatively, tongs, spatulas, or an appropriate serving utensil can be used to avoid direct bare-hand contact.

6. The Falsification of Records

Documentation plays a critical role in ensuring the safety of food for two primary reasons. Firstly, it serves as evidence, a demonstration of due diligence in the event legal issues arise; in other words, that critical food safety controls have been identified and implemented on board. Secondly, it enables companies to recognize and address potential food safety issues before they become major problems. For example, by consistently monitoring refrigeration temperatures, food handlers can report any deficiencies to maintenance teams to correct, as opposed to finding out only after an outbreak of acute gastroenteritis.

From warewashing machine temperature logs to cleaning schedules, these records serve various purposes, but their significance remains consistent. Keeping accurate food safety records supports a preventive approach to food safety and provides essential evidence for investigating disease outbreaks when they occur on board.

Trained and observant public health inspectors can easily detect record falsification; often, it boils down to simple common sense. Incorrect practices frequently observed include:

  • Uniform Handwriting: The same pen and handwriting used on multiple records covering a wide timeframe raises suspicion, as it’s generally indicative of logs being completed en masse.
  • Consistent Rounding: When temperatures are continuously rounded to the nearest whole number, or the same number is repeated for numerous temperature readings—such as on cooling logs for potentially hazardous foods—it can be a sign of record falsification (or a lack of training).
  • Pre-Completed Records: If records are filled out ahead of time, not only is it a clear indication of documentation manipulation, but it also raises doubts about all other aspects of food safety operations on board.

Among all food safety violations, deliberately falsifying food safety records is particularly egregious; there is a special place in “food handler hell” reserved for this particular misdemeanor, as unlike other food safety sins, it’s normally deliberate. Crew members must understand that such actions could have legal repercussions in the event of a serious food poisoning incident and subsequent investigation by health authorities.

The best advice is simply not to engage in this practice; there is no real reason to do so.

7. Inadequate Food Temperature Monitoring

The final deadly food safety sin came down to a choice: either reusing items that have been previously placed out for service on a buffet, or neglecting to diligently monitor the internal temperature of food. Ultimately, the latter proved to be the more critical error.

For any business involved in handling and preparing food, temperature monitoring is paramount. When serving food to the public, you directly impact their health. Relying solely on sensory cues—such as smell, appearance, or texture—to determine if food is safe to consume isn’t sufficient, which is why a food thermometer is an essential tool for every food handler.

Using a food thermometer is the only reliable way to determine whether potentially hazardous foods have reached the necessary minimum internal temperatures required to destroy any pathogens present that can cause foodborne illnesses. For instance, poultry can appear fully cooked, even turning brown on the outside, before it reaches the temperature necessary to eliminate those harmful pathogens. Relying solely on color as an indicator of food ready for consumption poses a risk, as pathogenic microorganisms may survive. To ensure food safety, poultry should be cooked to a minimum core temperature of 74°C (165°F) for at least 15 seconds.

Surprisingly, many chefs working on cruise ships lack their own food thermometers. Instead, they often rely on company recipes, their culinary experience, changes in food characteristics, or other forms of guesswork to determine whether food has been cooked correctly. Eyeballing food to assess safety is a risky strategy, especially when the health of guests and your fellow crew members is at stake.

It’s Time to Repent!

On a cruise ship, food safety is a shared responsibility. Senior executives ashore, shipboard managers, and food employees all play a crucial role in maintaining safe conditions for food storage, preparation, and service on board. From the CEO to the dishwasher, everyone is accountable for ensuring food is safe to consume.

To err is human, however, food handlers must recognize that a single mistake can have serious consequences. Food safety must be considered a non-negotiable prerequisite for all cruise lines and ship management companies.

Vigilance regarding common food safety errors is essential for stakeholders to execute tasks correctly and to prevent food safety incidents. By prioritizing these elements, maritime companies can enhance their food safety management programs and safeguard the well-being of all who sail on board.