The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

February 19, 2013

No central agency oversees, inspects cruise ships

— A byzantine maze of maritime rules and regulations, fragmented oversight and a patchwork quilt of nations that do business with cruise lines make it tough for consumers to assess the health and safety record of the ship they are about to board in what for many is the vacation of a lifetime.

Want to know about a ship's track record for being clean? Want to assess how sanitary the food is? It's not that easy to find, in part because there's no one entity or country that oversees or regulates the industry with its fleet of ships that are like mini cities floating at sea.

In the case of Carnival Cruise Lines, the owner of the Carnival Triumph that spent days in the Gulf of Mexico disabled after an engine fire, the company is incorporated in Panama, its offices are based in Miami and its ships fly under the Bahamian flag — a matrix that is not unusual in the cruise line industry.

For potential passengers seeking ship information, there's no central database that can be viewed to determine a track record of safety or health inspections. No one agency regulates everything from the cruise line's mechanical worthiness to the sanitation of its kitchens.

The U.S. Coast Guard inspects each cruise ship that docks in the U.S. every year for a range of issues, from operation of backup generators to the lifeboats. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains a database of recent disease outbreaks and other health inspection information for cruise ships. Had Triumph vacationers looked up information about the cruise ship through those two agencies before boarding, they would have found mostly clean marks and few red flags.

And when something goes wrong, as it did on Triumph, there are limits to how much the Coast Guard can investigate.

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