Perspectives Online

HACCP certification alums oversee food services for Antarctic research stations

Ayotte, here with fellow South Pole denizens, has worked with the U.S. Antarctic Program for 12 years.
Photo courtesy Sally Ayotte

Ever panicked about hosting a big dinner party? Imagine feeding 1,200 people, four times a day, in one of the most remote regions of the world.

It’s not impossible, say Sally Ayotte and Angie Burton, who both recently completed Food Safety HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) Certification in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Ayotte, a registered dietitian, has worked with the U.S. Antarctic Program for the past 12 years, most recently as the executive chef responsible for food service at the three U.S.-operated research stations in the South Pole.

Burton is the winter food services supervisor at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. She oversees all food operations on station for the winter season and helps the summer executive chef and crew at the start of their season.

The pair worked together for two seasons on the ice, and they agree, the job can be quite enjoyable.

In the book, Be Happy at Work: 100 Women Who Love Their Jobs and Why, Ayotte said, “There is nothing to do at the South Pole but work, eat and sleep, which means I get to be in charge of one of the big three.

“We all give up a lot to be here for six months every year. … What do you do when you want a little comfort, when you want to warm up, when you miss your family and want to forget where you are for a few minutes and be reminded that someone cares about you? You eat!”

To feed the masses, Ayotte planned her six-month menu very carefully. She received one shipment of dried, canned and frozen food each year. Produce was flown in regularly from New Zealand, but those deliveries were unpredictable. Being adaptable was key, she said.

Ayotte managed 75 employees and built creative menus out of 5,000 pounds of ground beef, 5,000 pounds of seafood, 12,000 pounds of chicken breast and equally impressive numbers of frozen vegetables.

It was a great challenge, she said, “to produce food to satisfy 1,200 hungry scientists and support staff.” But the people were her favorite thing about the job. “Some of the most interesting folks I’ve worked with have been my work mates in the Antarctic,” she said.

The sun rises and sets once each year, casting McMurdo residents either in pitch black or nonstop sunshine for months at a time. It’s easy to become depressed there, Ayotte said in a 2006 MSNBC

interview. But she realized the healing power of food and decided she could play a role in bringing people happiness.

She also loved the diversity of her responsibilities. “The beauty of the job is that every day is different,” she said. “Some of the tasks included ordering food, teaching the ServSafe class to employees, developing job hazard analyses for training and dealing with the logistics of receiving the year’s worth of food.”

Ayotte learned about the College’s Food Safety HACCP Coordinator certificate program while working in Antarctica. “I decided to move toward a career path involving food inspections in which I could draw on my years of food-service experience,” she said.

She completed the certificate program last spring and now is working to complete the Food Safety Certificate Program online. She lives in Salida, Colo.

Burton is in Antarctica now, working the winter season at McMurdo station. She’s worked two summer seasons and five winter shifts there since 2003. There isn’t really a typical day on the job, she said.

“I take on many roles each week, and it very much depends on the season and our staffing levels,” she said. “Many days are dramatically different from the last.”

Among Burton’s responsibilities: place and receive the weekly order, conduct regular food safety inspections of the kitchen and service area, plan menus and lead the weekly safety meeting. She also fills in where needed, she said, even if that means shoveling snow.

“The diversity is what I appreciate the most,” she said. “We have a different group of folks each season and are staffed differently as well, so each season is new and therefore many days are different.”

One of the biggest obstacles is the availability of items.

“I work through the season when there are no planes from late February until mid to late August, so there is no ability to fly any necessary items down.”

Burton completed the College’s HACCP Certification last spring, and when she’s not living at the bottom of the world, her home is Oakland, Maine.

What does she miss most?

“Fresh fruit and vegetables, grocery stores, driving and my friends and family,” she said. Being at McMurdo, she said, is like “college for adults, except we go to work instead of going to class.

“We live pretty simple lives.”

— Suzanne Stanard