(Editor’s Note: This is an online-only article attributed to the August/September 2017 issue.)
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Imagine operating U.S. government funded food service venues in the total absence of any pest control programs.
Implausible as this may seem, that’s exactly how it goes in Antarctica, according to Tom Senty, culinary manager of the United States Antarctic Program (USAP).
“One benefit of operating a food service program in Antarctica is the lack of pests,” Senty emphasizes. “No professional pest control service is needed here. During December and January, the warmest months, when the sea ice melts, there may be a Penguin or Skua seabird sighting around town (McMurdo), however there is nearly zero chance they could make it into a food service or storage area.”
In the glorious absence of rodents, cockroaches, flies, and ants, Senty oversees the food service at the three U.S. year-round research stations on the frosty continent: McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott South Pole, and Palmer.
Without interruption since 1956, American scientists have been studying the Antarctic and its interactions with the rest of the planet. The National Science Foundation, headquartered in Arlington, Va., funds and manages the USAP, including all U.S. scientific research and related logistics in Antarctica, as well as aboard ships in the Southern Ocean. The program’s goals are to understand the Antarctic and its associated ecosystems; to understand the region’s effects on, and responses to, global processes such as climate; and to use the region as a platform to study the upper atmosphere and space. Research is supported in Antarctica only when it cannot be done better elsewhere.
Funded by the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs, USAP research focuses on astronomy, atmospheric sciences, biology, Earth science, environmental science, geology, glaciology, marine biology, oceanography, and geophysics. In addition to the three stations, the USAP operates several summer research camps and two research vessels that sail in the Antarctic waters.
The program’s annual budget for research and operations, including all food service, is approximately $350 million.
Carrying forward U.S. goals supporting the Antarctic Treaty, the USAP strives to encourage international cooperation, maintain an active and influential presence in the region, and continue to conduct high-quality science research, all while sustaining funding efficiency.
The Frozen Tundra
Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, harshest continent, and with only about 2 inches of precipitation per year, it is actually the driest place on Earth. Antarctica spans roughly 5.4 million square miles and has an average elevation of more than 6,500 feet. Some 98 percent of Antarctica’s landmass is covered by an icesheet estimated to be seven million cubic miles in size.
McMurdo Station, the main and largest U.S. station, and the largest of any in Antarctica, is located 850 miles north of the South Pole and boasts a mean annual temperature of 0 degrees Fahrenheit. McMurdo, where Senty is based, has a maximum population of about 1,100, including researchers and support staff, with an average of 900 to 1,000 during the austral summer operating season.
Senty hires all the USAP food service staff, which includes more than 80 employees at McMurdo, a dozen or so at South Pole, and a couple at Palmer. “Plus we have team members at deep field camps and helicopter sites,” he says. “There are many field camps but only the larger camps have food service team members.”
In consideration of the harsh and isolated environmental conditions, to be what is considered “deployable” for USAP positions of any kind, individuals must pass rigorous physical, dental, and even psychological examinations. “As part of the medical screening, applicants must disclose any severe allergies they have to the medical department,” Senty adds.
Exceptional Talent Pool
“Unlike many U.S. food service establishments, we have a large pool of over qualified candidates that would love the opportunity to be part of the USAP,” Senty says. “Thus, we generally hire individuals that would qualify for higher level positions stateside. For example, our production cooks often have career experience as sous chefs, and our sous chefs typically have previously been executive chefs in the States. One of the benefits of this talent pool is that our team has a high level of awareness and focus on food safety standards.”
That’s a good thing, because Senty is quick to point out that “much like back in the States, many of our food safety focuses lie within our teams’ ability to consistently follow established processes.”
No Weekly Trips to Grocery Store
Senty orders all the food, which is basically done once a year for the McMurdo and South Pole stations. “Starting in March and April, we put out a notice for bids on our annual supply,” he relates. “We procured our food through Sysco in 2015 and SSA (Systems of America) in 2016. Stay tuned for the 2017 vendor.” (The order is out to bid as we go to press.)
Whomever is awarded the bid does the food packing at their own facility and then delivers it to a USAP-contracted ship in Port Hueneme, Cal.
“We send two Antarctic Support Contract personnel to check the order at the supplier’s facility and ensure we are receiving the correct products and correct amounts,” Senty says. “We also have a U.S. Army Food Safety Officer (FSO) check the products for wholesomeness and minimum shelf life requirements before they are crated for shipping.”
In mid-January, a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker will break up the ice at McMurdo station, so both the annual fuel tanker and container ship can deliver the food, equipment, and other materials needed for the next year’s program.
“The ship’s trip from California to Antarctica typically takes about 30 days,” Senty mentions, noting that it takes three days to off load all the cargo being delivered to McMurdo.
Senty explains that three data loggers (temperature monitoring devices) are placed in each freezer container before the food is loaded in California. “The ship’s crew will maintain power to the shipping containers to ensure they remain frozen,” he says. “The data loggers will tell us whether there were any failures. In the unfortunate event any of our food was exposed to unsafe temperatures in transit, the food is turned over to the on-site waste department.”
The 2016 shipment included more than 800 crates of food weighing 800 pounds per crate. “We ordered 640,000 pounds of frozen food, plus ‘do not freeze’ food and food that can be frozen, close to one million pounds total,” Senty relates. “The food order that arrived in January 2017 was approximately 20 percent smaller.”
Fresh produce from Australia and New Zealand, called freshies by USAP participants, are flown in seasonally from New Zealand, as weather and airplane space and weight permit.
“Although there are regular flights from New Zealand to McMurdo Station throughout the operating season, there won’t always be space or weight to add fresh produce and other food stuffs,” Senty says. “For example, we may go six to eight weeks without a local delivery or we could get anywhere from 3,000 to 12,000 pounds a week, depending on the size of the airplane.”
Passengers, science needs, parts to fix equipment, etc. all take priority over food, Senty emphasizes. “And so they should, not that my chefs will always agree with that statement,” he quips. “We have ample food on station in our warehouses and supporting science is the reason we are here.”
Senty says hardy fruits and vegetables tend to hold up fine, however softer items are susceptible to the temperature fluctuations that occur during transport or the time it can take to transport them from the port to each station. “That makes any of those softer fruits and veggies a highly valued food item that has a positive impact on morale when they’re available,” Senty points out, adding that fresh strawberries have a particularly tough time surviving in Antarctica.
During extreme temperatures, thermal blankets are placed over the freshies in the airplanes, and then in the transport trucks for the 45-minute drive from the “airport” to McMurdo.
The South Pole Station annual order is flown from McMurdo when the ship arrives. “At South Pole they also receive some freshies, which are flown from McMurdo when flights and space are available,” Senty says.
Army Food Safety Audits
Twice a year, a U.S. Army FSO stationed in New Zealand visits McMurdo by plane to inspect the shipment of food when it arrives and also conduct an audit of the food service facility at that same time, and then conduct another food safety audit in November.
“The FSO reads each data logger when the food is offloaded in Antarctica to ensure no products had any time and temperature issues during transport,” Senty elaborates.
“Our auditor is approved by the Department of Defense, so we can purchase food from approved vendors in different countries,” Senty mentions. “She audits any vendors in other countries that want to be suppliers to USAP.”
All three stations utilize a rotating menu with a five-week template. “Changes may be made depending on availability of some foods,” Senty says.
McMurdo gets fresh eggs in the shell from New Zealand to make the breakfast eggs to order. “We get frozen eggs for omelets and scrambling,” Senty mentions.
During the busy summer season (December through February), the McMurdo dining facility, which operates cafeteria style, will feed 800 to 1,000 people throughout the course of any given meal period, with about 300 people dining at any one time.
“A lunch is served from midnight to 1:00 am for the night shift,” Senty says. “We call that midnight rations, or mid rats for short. And we have a deli buffet, pizza, and a make it yourself waffle station that are available around the clock. As a food safety measure, everyone must wear disposable gloves when making deli sandwiches.”
All fluid milk served is reconstituted from powder. “Butter comes frozen on the ship,” Senty says. “We also get cream and cottage cheese from New Zealand. Because of the high demand and the limited freezer space we do not buy ice cream for McMurdo, but we do have a soft serve machine. The South Pole gets real ice cream, however. There is no limit to freezer space at the South Pole.”
Allergen management is a USAP food service priority. “We do our best to identify all of the ingredients in all of our foods,” Senty, a certified ServSafe instructor and proctor, emphasizes, “especially the big eight allergens. We always prepare a vegetarian alternate to any meat entrees. The USAP cannot, however, accommodate special diets or severe allergies.”
South Pole Station
Senty typically makes one or two trips to South Pole Station each season via ski-equipped cargo plane to check on the food service team and inventory.
At an elevation of 9,300 feet, South Pole Station has an average monthly temperature in the austral summer of -18 degrees Fahrenheit and -76 degrees Fahrenheit in the austral winter. South Pole has a summer population of 150 and winter population of about 50.
Food service there consists of three meals a day, on a smaller scale than McMurdo. All South Pole provisions come through McMurdo by plane.
Palmer Station, on the peninsula side, is milder, with an average temperature range between 36 degrees Fahrenheit in the austral summer and 14 degrees Fahrenheit in the austral winter. Palmer Station is nearly 2,485 miles from McMurdo Station and is accessible by vessel from Chile.
The smallest of the three U.S. stations, Palmer has a maximum population of 46, who are also served three meals a day.
Palmer Station receives two food deliveries a year, which are shipped from Port Hueneme to Chile and then transported, typically by a USAP-leased research vessel to Palmer Station. The food order is approximately 5 percent of the size of McMurdo’s food order. “Palmer personnel also have the luxury of ordering freshies from Chile every six to eight weeks, which are delivered by boat,” Senty notes.
Not surprisingly, and obviously, temperature control figures significantly in the USAP’s food safety protocols.
“We have three different temperature environments we store food in, namely ‘keep frozen,’ ‘can be frozen,’ and ‘do not freeze,’” Senty relates. “There is virtually no ‘keep refrigerated’ storage, with the exception of the kitchen walk in coolers.”
“Can be frozen” products are suitable for USAP’s non-temperature regulated warehousing. “At our South Pole Station this equals frozen 365 days a year,” Senty mentions. “The all-time record high temperature at the South Pole is 9 degrees Fahrenheit and temperatures rarely ever get out of the negatives. At McMurdo and Palmer Stations, the temperature can change from 70 degrees below zero Fahrenheit to 50-plus degrees above zero Fahrenheit, depending on the time of year.”
“Do not freeze” products are stored in heated warehousing at all three USAP stations.
“Keep frozen” products at the South Pole have the same status as “can be frozen,” Senty notes. “We have a freezer warehouse in McMurdo and we use freezer shipping containers at Palmer,” he says. “When the food orders show up on the vessels, all of this space is quickly filled to capacity.”
“We spend added time tracking the temperature of foods that have been cooked and not eaten during the scheduled meal period,” Senty points out. “Our blast-chiller at McMurdo gets used extensively and we maintain temperature logs for all products going into and out of the chiller. As products are repurposed, we continue to label and track those products to ensure they have never been in the temperature danger zone for an unacceptable period of time throughout the life of that product.”
Senty emphasizes that, at the three U.S. stations in Antarctica, the first food safety rule is always “when in doubt, throw it out.” “With that said, repurposing food when it’s safe to do so saves the program a great deal of money every year,” he says.
Just like all the waste from the USAP, the food waste is repackaged and loaded onto the container ship to be shipped to California for disposal, Senty relates, adding that it takes two days to completely on load the vessel for the return trip from McMurdo. “Food waste is kept frozen on the way back to the states to prevent the food from rotting during transport,” Senty says. “The cost of shipping food waste back to the states frozen is substantial. So minimizing food waste is a major focus for our food service team.”
Leake, doing business as Food Safety Ink, is a food safety consultant, auditor, and award-winning journalist based in Wilmington, N.C. Reach her at LLLeake@aol.com.