Aboard the Carnival Vista, Carnival Cruise Line’s newest ship, crew members hid trolleys of potentially hazardous food, equipment and dirty dishware from sanitation inspectors.
Fruit flies were found by the buffet and in a Parmesan cheese container. Crew failed to appropriately document illnesses on board.
On the Carnival Breeze, another of the Doral-based line’s newest vessels, machinery was found to be corroded or not functioning properly. About 25 garbage bins overflowing with waste were found by inspectors near an area where food was handled.
These violations and dozens of others landed both ships failing grades from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vessel Sanitation Program, which routinely inspects cruise ships in an effort to control the spread of gastrointestinal illnesses. Ships must score 86 points or higher, out of 100, to pass.
On the whole, numerous failures by ships from major cruise lines are fairly rare.
But December’s reports follow another Carnival failure reported in November aboard the Carnival Triumph, bringing Carnival’s tally to three failed inspections in the past two months.
The CDC only recently released the three reports detailing a laundry list of violations, some as seemingly harmless as pooling water and others as egregious as crew attempting to hide information from inspectors.
“This is something that some people will find strange, although when you look at the industry as a whole it’s not unusual for there to be [failures] somewhere,” said Miami-based maritime lawyer James Walker. Most failures happen on smaller ships from lesser-known cruise lines, he said.
He estimates that failed inspections on cruise ships happen about two to three times a year, making Carnival’s current string of failures a rarity.
For its part, the cruise line said that the health and well-being of its guests and crew is its “foremost priority.”
“We take these inspections very seriously and share lessons learned and best practices with every ship in our fleet,” said Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer De La Cruz in a statement. “We appreciate the work of the USPH in identifying areas for improvement and we have taken immediate action to address the issues identified during recent ship inspections.”
Since its failed inspection, the Carnival Triumph has been re-inspected and received a passing score of 98, De La Cruz said, though that report has not yet been published by the CDC.
Corrective action reports for the Vista and Breeze, which would detail what the cruise line has done to correct the issues discovered during the inspections, have not yet been submitted by Carnival.
Violations on Carnival Vista and Breeze
During the Carnival Vista’s inspection on Dec. 2, when the ship docked in Miami, CDC inspectors said they found crew members had made an “organized effort” to physically move containers and trolleys with “food equipment, utensils, spices, potentially hazardous food items, raw produce, and decorations to a crew cabin hallway and a crew cabin in order to avoid inspection by [Vessel Sanitation Program] staff.”
Among the items hidden: soiled plastic cups, a stack of about 100 chipped plates, a dirty container with coriander seeds, red fajita seasoning, juniper berries, bay leaves, balsamic vinegar, spatulas, 23 packages of too-hot butter, buffet decorations and raw meat and produce. Inspectors ensured the crew disposed of all the items.
Elsewhere on the ship, containers of raw lamb cutlet, raw salmon and raw minced beef were stored in direct contact with produce. Some areas, next to a pizza oven and a smoker, were found to be dirty.
On the Carnival Breeze, which was inspected on Dec. 10, inspectors found the levels of bromine, which kills bacteria in the water, in the Cloud 9 spa hot tubs to be too low.
Other issues included a ship-board provisions room crowded with broken or dirty machinery: a meat grinder with a soiled chute; a deli slicer with a dirty back plate, where the food exits the slicer; and a filthy top compartment in an ice cream machine. And in the buffet area, inspectors watched as crew left dirty trays, plates, cps and utensils on dining tables for hours.
Crew on both ships were found improperly filling out documentation on passengers who got sick on board. Crew on the Vista and the Breeze were also found going back to work even though they were experiencing symptoms of acute gastroenteritis.
Despite the issues, there does not appear to be a clear correlation between failed inspections and outbreaks of norovirus, Walker said.
Unsanitary conditions get personal
Where the failures do have an impact is on individual cruisers who have directly dealt with unsanitary conditions.
Take Missouri couple Christine Parker and John Shoemaker. On their November honeymoon aboard the Carnival Triumph, they were unable to use their bathroom onboard when it began to eject what they called “black sewage” from the shower drains, Parker said in an interview. The black liquid would bubble out of their drains smelling of fecal matter, forcing the couple to use the bathrooms in the spa instead for the duration of their five-night voyage.
“We didn’t have a good honeymoon. People expect you to come back so excited and we have been fighting with the Carnival staff and smelling poop in our room. We were exhausted and angry,” said Parker, who is a biologist. “[The crew] acted like this was normal, that was the really thing that was salt in the wound. I understand that that’s their job to minimize it, but what if that stuff had gotten into a cut on our feet and we would have gotten an infection?”
In a video Parker took during the trip, a crew member can be heard saying, “This is very bad and it smells very bad,” as liquid starts gurgling from the shower drain. The ship arrived in port on Nov. 11, the day inspectors boarded before giving the ship a failing grade.
But Carnival refutes the claim that the liquid was sewage. The back-up in their shower drain on the cruise could not possibly be sewage, De La Cruz said, because the plumbing systems for sewage and showers are separate.
“When water sits in pipes it can develop an odor and when drains back up sometimes there is debris...This is what occurred in their shower,” she said in a statement.
Ultimately, Carnival offered the couple $300 in onboard credit, a complimentary spa treatment and 15 percent off their next cruise with the line — which Parker said she never expects to take.
Passenger Tina Byles, who was on the Triumph for a New Year’s voyage, said her cabin smelled of poop as well. Her glasses at breakfast were dirty and the water cloudy, and she ultimately got ill with a stomach virus on the ship. And Bryan Braddock, another frequent Carnival cruiser who sailed on the Triumph in early November, said he found what appeared to be bed bugs in his cabin and hair from a previous passenger in his bed. Both Byles and Braddock said they likely won’t sail on Triumph, and possibly Carnival, again.
Carnival said it, along with other cruise operators, helps to fund the Vessel Sanitation Program to ensure ships are constantly being audited for these kinds of issues.
“Rest assured we will leverage our learnings from this process as a best practice,” De La Cruz said. “We remain confident that our shipboard operations, especially in food handling and preparation, are of the highest quality and we are always committed to delivering an exceptional experience to our guests.”
In the bigger picture, Walker said, failed inspections will likely not make a dent on cruise ship performance.
“I think the industry is growing just leaps and bounds, and most people are affected by the price of the cruise [more than anything else],” he said. “You wouldn’t go to the local Chinese restaurant if it fails its inspection, but no one is stopping these ships from sailing if they fail an inspection.”
This story has been updated from its original version.
This story was originally published January 16, 2018 5:52 PM.