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By John Martin

Each passenger ship had a recognized ‘code’ in the form of an announcement over the ship’s speaker system informing the crew that inspectors of the United States Port Health had boarded on arrival at a US port for a Vessel Sanitation Inspection.

Inspections are not pre-announced, so such a code could send department heads into a mild panic as to whether all the requirements of the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention were in place or were being practiced by the crew. These regulations were quite stringent and should an inspector find a deficiency in practice or procedure in their extensive check-list, the ship would be marked down accordingly.

A final ‘score’ from such an inspection is made public by the CDC and made available to Travel Agents. 85 points or below (from 100) is considered a fail and would be re-inspected reasonably quickly. Ship operators consider 90 or less as cause for concern when they are competing with other operators.

The current Vessel Sanitation Program Operations Manual (2018) runs to 290 pages. On board ship managers should be familiar with their areas of responsibility. This covers medical facilities, potable water systems, swimming pools and whirlpools, child activity centres, accommodation, ventilation systems – and of course, the hotel operations - galleys, dining areas and bars.

Here is an example of the publicised USPH scores. Individual ships can be identified with the date of the inspection, any previous scores, and the report can be seen too. Here ‘Seven Seas Mariner’ is ‘sailing close to the wind’ for a ‘fail’.

Sailing with Premier Cruise Lines in the early 1990’s we would be arriving into Port Canaveral twice a week. Each arrival morning three groups would meet at 6am for a pre-arrival inspection. This would cover accommodation areas including pantries, galley and stores and bars. For the latter, not only the senior hotel officers, but also attached were plumbers, electricians and ‘fridge engineers to rectify any deficiencies on the technical side.

We were aware that being an older ship that we did not meet some of the requirements that were being stipulated – as in pantry and bar areas having not as many wash-hand basins within a specified area. In food preparation and stores areas the bulkhead covering was not in continuous sheathing and there were areas where the amount of lumens from lighting did not meet specifications. We recognised that we would not achieve a score of 100, but if all our other attempts to meet requirements we would hope for a score in the low to mid-90’s.

Premier arranged for me to attend a three day Vessel Sanitation Management course in Miami where we studied the VSP (Vessel Sanitation Programme) Operations Manual.

On board, one of my roles as Deputy Hotel Manager was to undertake regular checks for sanitation compliance and permanently carried a thermometer and Ph litmus test strips. Looking into ‘fridges to make sure there were no potential cross-contamination hazards; making sure that crew were not trying to cool their canned drinks in the ice machines; that the ice scoops were in a recognised sanitizing solution; that the dish-wash machines were reaching the required temperatures; that food preparation work surfaces had been satisfactorily sanitized when finished with.

Come the day of the dreaded code.3 points lost on the potable water system. 1 point lost for not having ‘food preparation maintained at correct temperature’ and 1 point for ‘food preparation equipment not being sanitized satisfactorily’. In the first case it was that broken eggs were not being kept in an ice bath.On the pre-inspection this had been checked prior to omelettes and scrambled egg orders.But in the hurly-burly of a busy breakfast, the ice bath got neglected

USPH Inspector testing pool samples

In the second, the inspectors tested the temperature of the sink in the pot-wash and found it below 180⁰ F (82⁰ C). It was explained that the scullions were on a break and that they had turned the steam line to the sink off. They would come back. On their return water temperature tested again – and found satisfactory. They then observed the pan sanitizing process. Not unsurprisingly, being watched by a whole group of people made them somewhat nervous and they failed to keep the equipment immersed in the water for the full proscribed one minute! Captain not happy that we were given a score of only 90. But at least pre-arrival inspections for the next six months were unlikely to be such tense affairs – as regular cruise ship callers are due two inspections a year.


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Very interesting - I'm sure most of us never knew of such inspections. Very reassuring for passengers, but perhaps not for crew. I wonder whether the operators are charged for each inspection? They should be, of course, but it may be an example of why cruise costs seem so high for a mass-customer operation!

John Martin
John Martin
Oct 07, 2023
Replying to

Depends on the tonnage Mike Lowe. The current price (2023) of an inspection for a ship of 30,001 - 60,000 GRT (the size of ship I'm referring to here) is $US 8,790. For 'Super Mega' ships (>140,000 GRT) is US$23,920. To have a 'fail' which would incur a re-inspection - the fee would be the same again. AND the intention by CDC is that regular ship into US ports get two inspections in a year. Yes, the cost would be absorbed into operational costs.

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