Law should require companies to feed mariners a proper diet

In the movie Super Size Me, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock eats nothing but fast food for every meal, three meals a day, for a month. It doesn't take long before he, literally, gets sick from the food. By the end of the movie, after a month of eating this drive-thru cuisine, Spurlock has gained 24.5 pounds, has a cholesterol level of 230 and is experiencing mood swings as well as sexual dysfunction. Spurlock's movie visibly demonstrated why our health teachers taught us to eat a balanced diet.

Once, on a ship coming into Balboa, Panama, I was stepping out on deck before breakfast to enjoy the sunrise and have a cup of coffee. One of the QMEDs (Qualified Member of the Engine Department) was already out on deck, having his usual pre-breakfast wakeup of black coffee and a cigarette. We began talking about the blueberry pancakes the steward was going to serve, and he said, "They feed us good on here — the complete opposite of my last ship." "What happened there?" I asked. He continued, "I did a four-month tour in the Indian Ocean. They fed us hot dogs and macaroni and cheese, over and over again. By the end of the tour I was sick all the time. It was the worst ship I've ever been on."

For many years American mariners were fed substandard food such as hardtack, with no consideration for a balanced diet or proper nutrition, with many dying of malnutrition, scurvy and other diet-related maladies. Things got so bad that the White Act of 1898 was enacted. It required U.S. shipowners to provide a proper variety of foods to their officers and crews. All of these foods were stipulated on the Forecastle Card (USCG Form 704), an agreement signed and posted by the master on applicable vessels in accordance with 46 U.S. Code 10301, 10302 and 10303. A pound of potatoes, 1.5 pounds of fresh bread, and nearly a pound of meat each day were mandated — in addition to a variety of fruits, vegetables, condiments and coffee. That list of required foods on the Forecastle Card ensured that the officers and crews on board were fed substantial, healthy meals while on the vessel.

Then, in what many mariners considered a step backward, 88 years after the White Act of 1898 became law, the U.S. Coast Guard issued Navigation and Inspection Circular (NVIC) 1-86. It announced, among other things, a change in U.S. Code 10303. Instead of the longstanding list of required foods previously mandated, only the following sentence now needs to be posted and adhered to: "A seaman shall be served at least three meals a day that total at least 3,100 calories, including adequate water and adequate protein, vitamins and minerals in accordance with United States Recommended Dietary Allowance (USRDA).” Unfortunately, the USRDA just gives the amount of protein, vitamins and minerals an average person should have. They do not address the five basic food groups, nor the need to serve the crew a variety of fruits, vegetables, dairy products and meat every day. Essentially, as it stands today U.S. merchant mariners no longer have a legal right to be served a balanced diet. Protein bars and multi-vitamins, served three times a day, could ostensibly meet the regulation.

A U.S. Coast Guard study on crew endurance in the maritime industry pointed out that a poor diet served on board ship can affect the health of the crew and, therefore, ship safety as well. Johns Hopkins University researchers reported that "a poor diet can contribute to operational risks," including drowsiness and a lack of alertness — either of which could result in a disaster at sea. Even the International Medical Guide for Ships, 2nd Edition, states that, "In the seafarer's diet, the correct balance of different foodstuffs should be sought." In my opinion, U.S. Code 10303 should be amended to ensure that the 3,100 calories provided to mariners each day come from the five basic food groups, in accordance with the guidelines found on the federal website

On the website, government nutritionists detail how much of each of the food groups we should have every day. They recommend and encourage all U.S. citizens to eat a proper, healthy diet, which for adult males includes 7 ounces of grain products, 3 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, 3 cups of dairy products and 6 ounces of protein daily. By providing this information, our government shows it cares enough about its citizens to push for them to have a healthy balanced diet. It therefore should show the same consideration for all U.S. commercial mariners.

There are thousands of mariners who are not even entitled to the minimum amount of rations 46 U.S. Code 10303 requires, because they work on ships and boats on inland routes, or are crewmembers on commercial fishing industry vessels. I once got a mate's job delivering a fish processing ship from St. George Island in the Bering Sea to Seattle. After flying up to meet the vessel, the next day we departed. That morning the steward announced to the 40 of us on board that we didn’t have any fruits or vegetables left in the stores, and that we only had enough food for two meals a day. After about two weeks of this meal routine, we made a stop in Juneau, Alaska, to pick up some gear lube. The steward tried to get some stores, including fresh fruits and vegetables, delivered while we were in port — but the company turned down her request. Because the ship was a commercial fishing industry vessel, this was completely legal.

I was a cadet on a containership the first time I saw the food list on the Forecastle Card. At the time, I found it hard to believe that it took a federal law to force some shipowners to feed their crews a proper diet. Years later, I know from experience that there are still those out there who are more than willing to not provide their mariners with the healthy, varied diet they deserve. That's why it's time to legally require that all American merchant mariners, regardless of what ship or boat they are working on, be fed a proper diet — and to mandate that a commercial vessel which does not have an adequate amount and variety of food on board be considered unseaworthy.

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin'.

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff