Bacterial gremlins are everywhere and attacks can occur up to 30 days after consuming tainted food. Varying symptoms—aches, dizziness, nausea, cramps, and diarrhea—are often confused with the flu and other illnesses, but some food-borne ailments can cause permanent health problems, even death. Bacteria are inventive little critters that love food as much as we do. Some favorite munching targets for bacteria are protein foods, such as meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy products. We can’t see them, but bacteria are there; and tainted food often doesn’t appear, smell, or taste spoiled. Sailors should know that bacterial life begins at 40 degrees Fahrenheit and expires at 140 degrees. Between these two extremes it takes these prolific no-see-ums only 20 minutes to double in number.
Underscoring Cleanliness Sanitizing galley preparation areas and hands is very easy if you use some of the new products available at the supermarket—there now are antibacterial kitchen and hand wipes and cleaners that don’t require water while usurping no more space than traditional cleaners. Cold water is ineffective in dissolving the grease and food residue from dirty dinnerware and pans, making them prime bacterial breeding grounds. One way to tackle this problem is to boil a pot of freshwater to use as a sanitary rinse. The salt in ocean water also stems bacterial growth, so a warm saltwater bath might equally do the trick.
Cooking Safely Sailors can kill off bacterial parasites by cooking meats, seafood, eggs, and other protein foods to 140 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter. Use a meat thermometer or a doneness sensor placed at the center of the item to ensure this temperature is attained. And don’t create party fare for bacteria by taking a partially cooked pan of lasagna or any other dish down to the boat with plans to finish cooking it there.
Chilling Well Arriving at the boat with questionably safe food is no way to start a vacation or a short trip. Load the cooler only with prechilled foods and drinks. Prepare and refrigerate, or freeze, perishable dishes before your trip. Pack frozen foods together so they will keep each other cold and stash the cooler in the shade until you can unload it at the boat.
Freezing slows molecular movement, which essentially causes bacteria to take a nap; thus as long as foods remain frozen, they will be safe to serve. Setting frozen food out on a countertop to thaw is risky since the defrosted juices will attract our fiendish bacteria. Allow protein foods to thaw gradually in the icebox or defrost them in a microwave oven just before cooking. To be certain that foods left in a boat freezer have remained solid, leave a cup of ice cubes in the freezer. If you return to find the cubes have turned into a cup of water, your goodies have been compromised.
Avoid leaving perishable foods out for more than two hours, or one hour in hot weather. At a boat party, put out only what you feel will be consumed and keep the remainder on ice or hot on the stove. Instead of refilling a platter, replace it with a fresh one. Cover hot foods, like baked beans or cooked burgers, to keep them hot longer. If barbecuing, set cooked food to the side of the grill where it will stay warm without overcooking. To keep salads and deli meat platters safe in 90-degree weather, serve them on ice.
A cook is always plagued with questions of whether to risk serving the chicken that never got cooked, the leftover spaghetti sauce that’s been living in the refrigerator for the past week, or the days-old remains of takeout Chinese food. Spoiled foods may (or may not) smell funny, change to an odd color, feel slimy or sticky, or get moldy.
In my experience, food spoils twice as quickly when stored in an icebox or cooler than in a constantly running refrigerator. Raw chicken that might keep a few days at home needs to be cooked within a day and an opened jar of spaghetti sauce may survive only two or three days when kept in a boat icebox or erratic refrigerator. If your restaurant leftovers have hung around for a couple of hours without refrigeration, toss them. Otherwise, they will keep three or four days in a traditional refrigerator or one to two days on the boat. Be sure to reheat leftovers to steaming hot before serving warm.
A Canadian firm is supposedly developing a plastic food wrap that will change color if the food is contaminated with dangerous bacteria. The best news is that this product will cost no more than today’s supermarket sandwich wraps. Nevertheless, prevention will always be the best way to quell the bacterial challenge and ensure a healthy, happy, well-fed crew.
Food Safety Guidelines
I've taken the USDA food safety guidelines for some common foods and adapted them to include estimates for the icebox/inconsistent refrigeration scenario. Follow these and you should stay out of trouble when it comes to maintaining a bacteria-free menu on board.