Saturday, February 22, 2014

Survival in Antarctica

I hesitate to write this blog article in case someone misinterprets it.  So... DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!

I recently spent three weeks in the Taylor Dry Valley in Antarctica.  Conditions are relatively harsh, though we had excellent extreme cold weather gear, warm tents and double layer sleeping bags.  Approximately 19 scientists and several visitors, who stayed for a couple of days, shared a Polar Haven working tent - insulated wooden floor and heated by a diesel stove, with electrical power provided by a generator.  Conditions in the tent were quite crowded; we ate our meals in there, operated scientific instruments, and analysed data.

What does this have to do with food safety? 

There is no opportunity to bathe or even wash hands and only the most primitive sanitation facilities are available.  Baby wipes are the main means of keeping clean.  Nineteen individuals cooked for each other and ate together.  We ate all meals with our own cutlery and plastic food bowls and all drinks were contained in thermally insulated cups. Washing up consisted of a wipe with a paper towel or a non-scented baby wipe.  Because of the extremely dry conditions, we attempted to drink 4 litres of water every day, and all water came from Spaulding Lake, which is fed from the glaciers.  (Incidentally, the water tastes wonderful!)  Everyone carried their own 1 litre drink bottle.

Nobody contracted food poisoning.  I had both a personal and a professional interest in this!

This feat was the result of a combination of extreme personal hygiene care, the environmental conditions, and our diet.

In our Antarctic Skills Training programme, the importance of personal hygiene was emphasised - the Taylor Valley is very isolated and not a place to get sick.  Besides the use of baby wipes, tubes or pump dispensers of hand sanitiser were available everywhere and most team members carried their own supply too.

All our food, other than the dehydrated material, was stored outside in insulated boxes in the shade.  The mean ambient temperature was around 0C, so no opportunity for bacterial multiplication.

Our meals were either hot - bacon, pasta, meat stew, risotto, hashbrowns (lots), curry etc. -  or preserved in some way, such as dried and canned - cereals, canned fruit, milk powder, biscuits, soups, chocolate, muesli bars, peanut butter, jam, hard cheese, English muffins etc.  Most meals therefore were cooked in the outside camp kitchen and eaten immediately.  There were never any leftovers or reheating, so again no opportunity for bacteria to multiply or produce toxin.

I don't recommend that anyone should eat or prepare food for others without washing their hands, but this experience does show that with the proper precautions, it is possible, even in primitive conditions, to maintain food safety.

Odd Spot:  Perhaps the highlight of our 3-week deployment in Taylor Valley came the day after we ran out of meat.  Two of the helicopter pilots secretly organised to bring 4 or 5 large pizzas on one of the resupply missions.  They were heroes!