What Can Cruise Lines Teach the Restaurant Industry?

There’s a common misconception about cruise lines that has plagued the industry for years. “The cruise-ship virus” – or Norovirus, as it’s known on land – is most commonly associated with illness outbreaks on cruises. And although it may be an unfair designation – the CDC reports that 2018 shows the lowest number of outbreaks since 2001 – it has stuck. In fact, the number of people on cruises in 2001 was just under 10 million, while 27 million travelers were aboard in 2018 – making this the lowest percentage of outbreaks since the CDC started publishing outbreak numbers in 1994.

But what does all this have to do with restaurants? Don’t worry – we’re getting there…

Obviously, this cannot be an apples-to-apples comparison, as many more people visit restaurants each year, cruise passengers are required to complete an initial health screening prior to boarding, and a host of other reasons. But a lot of what makes cruise lines successful at preventing outbreaks can be used as an example to help restaurants keep customers safer.

According to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the risk of contracting Norovirus on land is about 1 in 15, while odds are 1 in 5,500 aboard a cruise ship. How is this possible? Accountability, prevention, protocols, education and training. Cruise lines take illness very seriously – and while they arguably have more to manage on any given trip than an individual restaurant, they still manage to observe food safety protocols and maintain the health of their passengers. In other words, Norovirus outbreaks are rare because cruise lines make illness prevention a priority.

CLIA, along with the CDC Vessel Sanitation Program, have worked to develop requirements for cleaning processes, staff training – even construction and equipment reviews – in an effort to monitor every aspect of food safety and sanitation programs. This “robust system of oversight”, as CLIA calls it, has created an effective system for preventing the spread of Norovirus and other illnesses onboard.

Part of CLIA’s oversight includes constant, regular cleaning of food areas – snack bars, kitchens and other locations – as well as a top-to-bottom cleaning at the end of every trip. Essentially, the entire vessel is constantly being cleaned. Additionally, all on-board staff must be trained in both first aid and public health practices, no matter their role or job title, and hand hygiene is emphasized to everyone on board. This meticulous approach not only keeps the physical facilities clean and sanitary, but staff members are informed and qualified to maintain high sanitation standards.

Another factor is accountability. Have you ever wondered why Norovirus outbreaks on cruises get so much publicity? CruiseFever reports that when an outbreak exceeds 2% of the total number of passengers on board, the cruise line is required to self-report to the CDC. While this model may not be feasible for restaurants, the emphasis on owning up to an outbreak has no doubt helped motivate cruise lines to keep their facilities cleaner.

You may be thinking, “So what’s the real difference?” and that’s a valid question. Restaurants are subject to food codes, inspections and the like – and so are cruise ships. The real differentiator between the two is that restaurants focus on the food (for good reason), and cruise ships make illness prevention a priority on every level. That’s not to say that foodservice operators aren’t concerned with preventing outbreaks. Food safety and cleanliness are top priorities for operators and managers, but by adhering to industry standards, holding every staff member on board responsible for knowing and understanding infection prevention, and maintaining high cleanliness standards, cruise ships have a united front against Norovirus.