Fall the dangers associated with a seafaring life, poor diet and food hygiene would probably rank low in a list of most crews' concerns. When you're contending with long and demanding days at sea, the last thing on your mind is getting your five portions of fruit and vegetables a day or worrying about bacteria in a curry. Yet the close-šuarters nature of ship environments means infectious diseases can be passed on very easily. In the case of food poisoning, a single batch of bad food served in the ship's dining room can end up affecting everyone, causing sickness or injury and affecting crew efficiency. In extreme cases, sick crew might need to be medically evacuated by the coastguard and the vessel might be detained pending a thorough investigation, at great cost to the ship's operator and manager. While most seafarers are young, healthy males, a tendency to snack on foods that are rich in fat, protein and carbohydrates, combined with poor education about nutrition, means many of them could suffer from serious health problems in later life. These problems can be avoided if properly trained cooks are employed on vessels, but many International jurisdictions ignore the existing legal bases on standards for ships' cooks. Furthermore, a lack of proper chef certification means owners and managers have little proof that the cooks they employ really do have the right skills and are not going to poison the crew. Thankfully, this situation looks likely to change with the impending ratification of the ILO's Maritime Labour Convention (2006), expected later this year, under which all flag states will be obliged to ensure that ships' cooks are adequately trained and qualified to provide good-quality, nutritious food. Now government safety departments are working to define how the regulations should be implemented, while other organisations attempt to establish a common training framework to ensure uniform standards for cooks worldwide. Calories and cholesterol Unhealthy diets have become commonplace in the maritime world, as crews load up on calories to get them through the day. The unfortunate consešuence has been a disproportionately high incidence of high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart defects in older seafarers, explained Brendan Kennedy, catering instructor at the Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement Maritime Training Centre. "Ships tend to be an almost all-male environment where crew eat what they like the taste of, rather than what is good for them," he explained. By way of example, Kennedy noted that seafarers should be eating produce that is high in natural raw sugars, such as fresh fruit and vegetables. Instead, the average seafarer consumes far too much fat, salt and oil and, as a result, puts on a lot of weight within the first two years of being at sea. "There's a general poor perception of healthy food and a lack of training for chefs,' he lamented. "The fast food culture of burgers and fried chicken has a lot to answer for." Many crew members are young men who, removed from the positive influence of the home environment, do not generally appreciate the benefits of fresh fruit and vegetables. The mix of cultures on board can also be a issue. Many commercial vessels are staffed b north European or Filipino officers and have predominantly Asian crews, but ships' cooks tend to serve up identical meals for everyone "Many Asians will eat vegetables only if they are in a soup, so they leave food uneaten," explained Kennedy. "Conversely, they have come to depend on rice in their diet, but that is high in starch and provides little in the way of energy. The best compromise is for chefs to prepare one meal but present it in two different ways for officers and crew." Poor food hygiene is also a concern and, if not properly addressed, can result in the spread of microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses. Moulds found in food can cause food poisoning, leading to a host of unpleasant symptoms, such as stomach pains, diarrhoea and vomiting. Food poisoning can also sometimes lead to gastroenteritis (inflammation of the stomach and bowel), or more serious health problems such as blood poisoning (septicaemia) and kidney failure. So food hygiene is a serious business: according to recent estimates, it costs the UK's National Health Service almost L30M ($47M) a year to care for patients with foodborne illness. No-one wants to fall sick aboard a vessel, where there are limited options for short-term treatment. In December last year, maritime training provider Videotel launched a food hygiene course that was compliant with the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) 2006 and that was approved by the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). It was intended to educate ships' masters, senior officers and catering crew about the precautions they should take. Taking a common sense approach to food can often make the biggest difference, Videotel chief executive Nigel Gleave told SAS. "Personal hygiene is perhaps the most important factor, which relies on some basic common sense: wash your hands when you come into the galley, don't wear soiled clothing, keep fingernails short and clean, cover any cuts with a plaster," he outlined. "In addition, catering staff shouldn't smoke, scratch their head or touch the mouth or nose in the galley." Storage, preparation and cooking are also important factors in food hygiene - catering staff need to ensure that suppliers are reputable and that products are used within their use-by dates, stored at the correct temperatures and kept secure from pests. Sometimes it is necessary to prepare different foods, such as chicken and vegetables, in separate areas, while some foods need to be cooked at specific temperatures to kill off bacteria. Food preparation areas need to be thoroughly cleaned and sanitised to prevent contamination. It is also important to ensure that pests cannot get into to galleys and storage areas. "Infestation can occur due to a lack of control over when and how stores come on board," noted Kennedy. "Cockroaches are a major problem in certain parts of the world. Some cultures even believe that living alongside disease-carrying insects is perfectly acceptable - the average cockroach is known to carry around 30 diseases that can be harmful to man," he said. If basic hygiene measures are not taken, masters face the prospect of a visit by port health officers who, in many countries, have the power of entry to ships to carry out food hygiene inspections. "If port health get involved they will treat ships the same as environmental health would treat a land-based restaurant," Kennedy warned. "They can stop the ship sailing." Changes to the MLC are the main driving force behind attempts to improve diet and hygiene on board ships. Specifically, the convention aims to ensure that "seafarers have access to good šuality food and drinking water provided under regulated hygienic conditions". It also dictates that member states should provide food free of charge to seafarers and ensure that those with responsibility for food preparation must be trained and šualified for their position. In the UK, the MCA is working towards ratifying MLC 2006 and has defined a set of draft proposals, which are awaiting formal consultation. From shore to sea The MCA's main focus is to enlarge the available pool of maritime cooks, for such professionals are in short supply. Shore-based chefs would be able to šualify to work at sea by completing two additional training units that cover ship-specific safety issues and ethnic/religious dietary rešuirements. The new ships' chef šualification would likewise be recognised ashore, which should improve work opportunities for chefs who have completed their seagoing career. "The proposed new regulations will be less burdensome by allowing shore-trained cooks to follow a career at sea without having to undertake unnecessary double assessment of their cooking skills," a spokesperson for the MCA explained to SAS. "For example, candidates with a [UK] higher national diploma certificate from an ordinary catering college, who have documentary evidence of their training, will not be rešuired to repeat that training to convert it into a UK (MLC 2006) ship's cook certificate." Those who need additional training will probably have to undertake a 15-hour 'bolt on' module, which will probably be completed through computer-based training. Catering staff responsible for preparing the crew's food will also have to undertake a basic food hygiene, preparation and food-handling course. The industry's next hurdle is to ensure that the same standards for qualifkation and training are attained worldwide. An EU-funded project, Sea-chefs, was launched in 2009 by the EU Cyprus Agency in an attempt to define uniform standards of competence for the fast-track training of seagoing cooks in Europe to meet MLC 2006. The project was carried out by Cyprus, Germany, Latvia and the UK under the direction of the Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement Training Centre, and identified the International Cooking Certificate (ICC) as a possible starting-point for defining maritime standards for cooks. The ICC is not yet formalised, but its certification/standards will probably be based on the examination of basic skills that demonstrate theoretical and practical expertise in professional kitchens and the on-site assessment of competence for workers in professional kitchens. Not everyone is behind the plan, however. The MCA, for one, is likely to keep with its existing programmes. "Whilst Sea-Chef s aims are to be lauded, the UK already has an array of excellent programmes available and we are looking to utilise existing šualifications and access the pool of talent that has undertaken this training," the agency told SAS. "We will publish a list of programmes that will lead to the issue of a UK ship's cook's certificate." Nevertheless, the MCA is prepared to recognise other flag states' ship's cook qualifications provided they are comparable to the UK rešuirements. Of course, seafarers will be less concerned about the route their chef took to šualification than about the quality of the food on the plate in front of them. Making the right choices about what to select from the menu up to the individual, but the message is clear don't forget your fruit and vegetables.