What's in a CDC Score (And What Happens When a Cruise Ship Fails)?

January 8, 2010
What's in a CDC Score? Potential problems with potable water disinfection. Improper labeling of water sources. Hazardous food temperatures. All three of these issues were cited by health inspectors from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention as part of a November inspection of German-based Peter Deilmann's Deutschland, which failed the test. But what does it really mean when a cruise ship fails an inspection?

First: How CDC Inspections Work

The CDC's Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP) was created in the early 1970s -- following a number of major gastrointestinal outbreaks on cruise ships -- to conduct a twice-yearly pop exam, required of all 13-plus passenger ships on foreign itineraries that call in U.S. ports. Ships are graded on a 100-point scale on a variety of sanitation requirements determined jointly by the cruise industry and the CDC. Interestingly, the cruise lines pay for each inspection based on gross registered tonnage. Inspecting a mega-ship (120,001 tons and above), like Freedom of the Seas or Queen Mary 2, costs the line $15,600. More mid-size ships (30,001 - 60,000 tons), like Regent Seven Seas Cruises' Seven Seas Mariner, are inspected for $7,800.

When a ship fails, it means that one or (more likely) more of a variety of measures designed to minimize the spread of infectious disease -- cleanliness of pools and hot tubs, food storage, even the personal hygiene of crewmembers -- did not meet minimum sanitation requirements. Each infraction can result in a point deduction. Have milk set out for public consumption above the mandated 41 degrees, and you'll be hit with a penalty. Improper chlorination of the water? Minus points. The complete list of guidelines is outlined in the VSP Inspection Manual.

If a ship is slapped with enough infractions, it could earn a failing score -- anything under 86.

A Ship Failed: Now What?

Typically, failing ships are re-inspected within 30 to 45 days. The reality is that the program has proven quite effective for the roughly 150 ships that participate. "We have very few ships (less than three per year) that fail the VSP inspection," Captain Jaret Ames, Vessel Sanitation Program Director, tells us, "and these ships do not fail in the re-inspection."

But even if the ship fails again, the only penalty may be the potential bad press garnered by earning another sub-standard score. As Captain Ames says, "There is no other penalty unless the ship falls into one of the imminent hazard situations where a possible 'no sail' results" -- which can happen at any time. This might be sparked by nonfunctioning refrigeration or wastewater systems, or a continuing gastrointestinal illness or Norovirus outbreak that cannot be controlled -- and the organization can issue a no-sail recommendation or even a no-sail order.

This order, made by the CDC's Chief Quarantine Officer and enforced by the U.S. Coast Guard, is very rare. The sole instance of a no-sail order occurred in 2001, when Arcadia (no relation to the P&O Cruises vessel) was detained during a Great Lakes cruise. According to an AP report from the time, the ship earned a 59 on one inspection, then failed another, at which time the CDC recommended that the ship stop sailing until problems were corrected. It sailed anyway, and the no-sail recommendation became an order following a third inspection.

Back to the present: Of the dozens of ships tested during the last three months, only Peter Deilmann's Deutschland, a 22,400-ton, 513-passenger luxury ship that caters almost exclusively to Deutsch-speaking cruisers, failed, earning an 84. Infractions included overly warm milk in a coffee machine by a pool (which should be kept at the aforementioned 41 degrees F or less, but was measured at 50) and overly warm rice in the galley (discarded immediately when it was brought to the crew's attention).

We were unable to get in touch with the line for comment. But sure enough, Captain Ames' statement rang true -- Deutschland has since passed its re-inspection, earning a 95.

On the other end of the spectrum, 10 ships earned perfect scores of 100 over the past two months. The achievers are Celebrity Equinox, the newest ship from Celebrity Cruises; NCL's Norwegian Pearl; Holland America's Eurodam and Westerdam; Princess Cruises' Emerald Princess; Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas; Carnival Cruise Lines' Carnival Freedom; P&O Cruises' Ventura; and Crystal Cruises' Crystal Symphony. According to a spokesperson for the CDC, there's been no inspection yet of Oasis of the Seas, the largest ever cruise ship that officially launched on December 1.

Public Recording of Scores

Beyond health, there's always the issue of public image. It's in the cruise line's best interest to take the scores seriously, says Captain Ames. "The VSP program posts the sanitation inspection report and scores on the VSP Web site," something that many cruisers may not be aware of.

--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor