Last year, when cruising on Silver Shadow from Sydney, Australia to Auckland, New Zealand, I did something unusual: I remained on board. To add some sparkle to the so-called turnaround, Silver Shadow Hotel Director Flavio Gioia invited more than a dozen back-to-back passengers, me included, to a special cocktail reception in the ship’s “Provisions Area.” The reception gave us an opportunity to visit behind the scenes, which was, as you might expect, immaculate.
On another day, I visited the galley and watched as the chefs prepared dinner for more than 300 guests. I saw no signs of conditions that might be deemed unsanitary.
Thirty one days on Silver Shadow and not a hint of what would befall the vessel a year and a half later: a failed grade when inspectors from the CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program made an unannounced inspection in Alaska, sending staff scrambling to tidy up as much as possible at the end of a busy breakfast period.
Silver Shadow wasn’t alone, and its grade was far from the worst. Since 2009, 11 ships scored failing grades (below 86), including SeaDream ll in January and Golden Princess in February. Hapag-Lloyd’s Columbus 2 scored the lowest of the 11 ships: 69 in November 2012.
What was unusual about the Silver Shadow fiasco was that the vessel is operated by a company that always ranks at, or near, the top of lists designating the world’s best. In the United States, Silversea Cruises has been voted “World’s Best” by the readers of Condé Nast Traveler (nine times) and Travel + Leisure (seven times), in addition to many other awards.
Silver Shadow’s failure is reminiscent of an episode in Denmark earlier this year when the world’s number-one restaurant, Noma, ceded its top spot to Spain’s El Celler de can Roca following a Norovirus outbreak that sickened dozens of diners at the Copenhagen eatery.
The CDC reports seven outbreaks of Norovirus on cruise ships this year, three on Celebrity Cruises, and one on Crystal Cruises, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean.
The lesson: Bad things can — and do — happen to even the best of the best.
Why did Silver Shadow fail the health inspection?
Primarily because of trolleys and food being hidden from inspectors in cabins. As noted, the inspection occurred at the end of a breakfast period where pots, pans and utensils were at working stations. Items to return to the galleys were on trolleys, as were stores from the fridges ready for use. When the galley staff heard that inspectors were on board, they quickly removed all trolleys and items not in the fridges and placed them in cabins out of the way — and out of sight of the inspectors, or so they thought.
In its report, the CDC says that an effort was made to “physically remove over 15 full trolleys of dry foods, spices, canned foods, cooked foods, milk, raw meats, pasteurized eggs, cheeses of all types, baking goods, raw fruits, raw vegetables, and a variety of both hand held and counter model food equipment, pans, dishware and utensils to over 10 individual cabins shared by two or three galley crew members in order to avoid inspection.”
A Silversea spokesman says the practices are against company policy and should not have happened and that corrective actions have been taken. The company notes that none of the improperly stored food was served to any guests.
Silversea’s official statement: “We take this infraction extremely seriously and wish to reassure all guests on our cruises that from all our investigations we believe this to be an extremely uncommon occurrence on Silversea vessels. Our record of inspections with the VSP shows that we maintain extremely high standards of hygiene on our vessels.”
How is Silversea responding to the incident?
Silversea says it has taken several initiatives to ensure that its standards are regularly met and that nothing like this can happen again. Staff involved in the incident were let go, according to a Silversea spokesperson. Additionally, since the June 17 inspection, Silversea says it has instituted the following:
- Assigned an external sanitation specialist consultant to travel on-board Silver Shadow. Together with Silversea’s managers, the consultant has worked through every aspect of the USPHS inspection report to ensure full compliance.
- Silversea’s Fleet Executive Chef spent one month on-board Silver Shadow retraining the galley management team through policies and procedures.
- Additional training was provided for all food handlers and supervisors, butlers, cooks, waiters and bar staff to reinforce company procedures, with particular emphasis on food sanitation.
- All equipment that does not meet the requirements of the CDC inspection has been discarded and replaced.
- A procedure in which any member of staff can inform management, anonymously, of any failures to follow procedures involving food handling and preparation was introduced.
- A zero-tolerance policy has been instituted in relation to improper food handling at all times, including USPHS inspections.
Should I feel safe cruising Silver Shadow?
You’ll need to decide for yourself whether or not you feel comfortable cruising on Silver Shadow. During my time on board, I found Silver Shadow to be perfectly compliant with the previous six inspections of the ship that resulted in scores ranging from 95 to 99, according to CDC records.
What happened on Silver Shadow this past June in Alaska was wrong. It appears that staff, not all of them but a select few, panicked and acted impulsively. In response to the incident, Silversea has taken responsible and appropriate action. The company does not excuse itself. It admits that mistakes were made, and it has instituted effective policies and programs.
I don’t think you’ll see infringements on Silver Shadow again any time soon, and I’ll bet that the vessel aces its next inspection. I can say without hesitation that I would cruise Silver Shadow without any concern just as I would dine at Noma in Copenhagen with no worries at all.
For now, Silversea is doing all that it can to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again. I trust — and hope — that the company will succeed in doing so. — Ralph Grizzle