My Perspective: Silver Shadow, Ship Shape?

© 2013 Ralph Grizzle

Visiting the Provisions Area on Silver Shadow in 2012.  In June of this year, the vessel failed a CDC health inspection. © 2013 Ralph Grizzle

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.

Your comments and insights are welcomed. Post them in the comments section below. 

Update: After writing this post, I learned that both Regent Seven Seas Navigator and Un-Cruises’ Safari Endeavour also failed health inspections in June. Regent Seven Seas Navigator scored 79 for a variety of violations. Safari Endeavour scored 81. Both ships passed when inspected again in August, with scores of 95.

  • francesco

    I have worked in cruise ships in th past and some of the ships are like floating rubish bins . Special the ones who do not go to American waters.The problem is not so much the regular staff but the tree and four officers and also the managers off shore.In Europe special the med .is a disgrace.

  • ra

    My daughter and I had the misfortune of sailing on the Silver Shadow on the June 20 trip. From the moment we boarded the ship things were “off”. This was a very special cruise for us and Silver Sea is not inexpensive. The ship personel appeared to be very tired and stressed. The woman that made the dining room reservations was very unpleasant and the host in Le Champagne was less than cordial. Our butler, a very sweet man, was always rushed. The crew made the best of it, but they were not what you expect from a Silver Sea experience. I spoke with guest relations. The woman was very nice and patient. She moved the two children staying in the suite next to us in with their parents and put adults next door. I knew nothing of the failed health inspection until recently. Perhaps that explains the stress factor. All in all, we enjoyed Alaska very much, but I feel very disappointed and cheated on my Silver Sea experience. I have sailed with Silver Sea before and wanted to share that delightful experience with my daughter. Unfortunately that didn’t happen.

  • aj

    We traveled alaska on the silver shadow july 3-12, just weeks after the failed inspection. A member of our party ate a hamburger at the deck grill and came down with virulent food poisoning – a few hours later, the poor guy was vomiting his guts out and spiked a typical fast fever that comes with such poisoning. The ship doctor was rude and unprepared when she came to the cabin. She eventually gave the guy a shot to stop the vomiting and she quarantined him for 24 hours just to be sure it wasn’t noro virus (it wasn’t). It was that hamburger, which no one else in our party ate. The guy who got sick said that the hamburger tasted strange, but he ate it anyway. All this to say: even in early july, there was still spoiled food on that ship. In addition, the general cuisine on the ship was really sub-par. Sometimes absolutely inedible. Terrible disappointment, not to mention terrible food-borne illness.

  • theavidcruiser

    Thanks for these additional insights Stuart. Quite interesting.

  • theavidcruiser

    Well said Simon. I encourage those interested in additional insights check out your piece at http://timespentatsea.blogspot.no/2013/07/trusting-silversea.html

  • Stuart Falk

    When I worked as Director of Marketing for V. Ship and the Vlasov Group (where I drafted the marketing portion of Silversea’s initial business plan and worked closely with the naval architect on the design for the first vessels), we always engaged a specialized firm to prepare cruise ships under our management for health inspections, which, along with more emphasis on the corporate level, ships increasingly get high grades. If V. Ships still manages their vessels hotel operations in addition to deck and engine officers (I know for a while at least Silversea’s tried to do that themselves), then this would have been part of their responsibilities, though of course the ultimate responsibility lies with Silversea’s management.

  • Simon Veness

    “The CDC inspectors asked to look in cabins as a result of pictures sent to them earlier this year from crew.” This is actually false, as the CDC’s own report states this is not the case. Some media outlets have put this out there as fact when it is anything but.

  • Simon Veness

    The fact Silversea have been so proactive, and open, about this serious failure suggests they are equally as appalled as the media, hence I would be very confident they will take all necessary steps to prevent this ever happening again, and continuing to be a fabulous line to cruise with. We also take a similar view to Ralph and have said as much on our blog today: http://timespentatsea.blogspot.com/2013/07/trusting-silversea.html

  • theavidcruiser

    Thanks for your good remarks Stuart. I’m not sure but I think V. Ships still runs the operations. I am heard from ground operators today in Italy (where I am traveling) that these inspections can be quite tough. For example, if a ship has food that has passed the expiration date but they have no way to get rid of it (i.e. the port does not allow disposal or it costs too much) and they’re not required to tag it and they know they’ll get penalized for it . . . well, it’s plausible that they would try to hide it.

  • fran

    I have cruised Silversea many times, and will continue to do so, as I find it the finnest experience afloat. Is it perhaps a question that they are noy American?. Don’t trust these inspections at all.

  • theavidcruiser

    No word on the upper management reorganization. Training procedures were initiated.

    Do I think it is an industrywide practice? I think in many situations where there are inspections (not only on cruise ships), there is hiding going on. When an unannounced inspection is expected, there’s probably some scrambling also.

  • Crystal fan

    1. This “mistake” makes $en$e in one respect. The bottom line.

    2. I am sure the underling low level employees responsible for physically moving the food are long gone. I doubt there has been any change in the administrative staff who made the order to do this stupid action. Any word on upper management “reorganization”?

    3. Why would a luxury cruise liner have equipment that does not meet the requirements of the CDC?

    4. Do you Avid Cruiser think this an industry wide practice?

  • Stuart Falk

    Does Silversea manage both the deck & engine and hotel operations themselves or do they still subcontract both to V. Ships, as they did when they began operations? Silversea, more than other cruise companies, seems to have a great deal of management turnover, which may be reflected in passenger services as well as technical operations. While the hardware is generally worthy of their deluxe niche, the ownership, including any silent investors, has a different business perspective than that of a public company, which may in turn make it more difficult to recruit and retain highly sought after professional staff. That said, while I think Seabourn,Regent (and, for software rather than hardware even Azamara) have better products, I agree that the failed inspection was a one off event which alone would not prevent me from cruising with them.

  • theavidcruiser

    Thanks for your comment. Are you still working with a cruise line? Just curious, which one?

  • Chengkp75

    If the staff were adequately trained to USPH standards, they would have known that dirty dishes and pots from the breakfast service, if properly placed in the dirty areas (dishwash and potwash stations) are acceptable to inspectors. Also, if food being returned to the refrigerators were properly handled (date/time tags for non-temperature controlled items, or PHF items kept within proper temperatures, they also would have been fine with inspectors. I believe, based on my training by the USPH, that the food was not properly documented, and not within temperature, which would have resulted in violations. This staff, from the top down, are not properly trained to USPH standards, and when outside US waters, they let the sanitation standards slip.

  • theavidcruiser

    Good point Jonathan. I can’t imagine that Silversea would endanger its guests’ health. They are the lifeblood of the cruise line. I know the company is embarrassed by the episode. It’s hard for me to believe that it’s standard practice. Why would they allow such behavior as hiding food. It just doesn’t make sense. Thanks for your comment.

  • CanadianKate

    My difficulty with thinking of this as a one-time incident is that the CDC inspectors asked to look in cabins as a result of pictures sent to them earlier this year from crew. Silversea has not answered the question, “If it was a one-time event, how is it there are photos from months ago showing similar conditions as found by the inspectors?”

    Another way to look at your experience: of course the provisions area was immaculate, anything that would be questionable had been stashed in crew quarters. When I have people over, all the things I have that shouldn’t be out (unprocessed papers, the pile of plastic bags being saved for church crafts, clothes that need mending, magazines waiting to be read, the cables for my mp3 player and phone) are stashed in laundry baskets, the baskets tossed into the bathtub and the shower curtain is pulled shut. Presto, magico, the main floor of the house is tidy! Luckily, I’m not having the CDC inspectors for dinner!

  • Jonathan Caves

    “The company notes that none of the improperly stored food was served to any guests” Yes: because the lead inspector poured bleach over the food (read the CDC report) – would the food have been served to guests if the CDC had not found it?