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Tales of a Foodie Traveller – Travel and Food Poisoning

Posted in Food Safety on October 25, 2018

As an avid food lover, I am always amazed at how dishes that seem so simple can make me so happy. The beauty of food is endless and the diversity knows no boundaries. Taste can give sensations in unimaginable ways. That feeling when you are eagerly awaiting a meal at a world class restaurant is the best, especially when your food exceeds all wildest imaginations. To put it simply, I can’t list enough adjectives to describe my love for food! Having had the pleasure of travelling far and wide and visiting different cultures, food is always top of the list for reasons to visit a country. Who can’t marvel at a fresh curry from Asia? Panda Express will never be the same again! I could write a novel about my favorite foods, but this article is to recount a few sobering tales of my experiences eating my way around the globe, of travel and food poisoning.

I Go Everywhere, and Eat Everywhere

Travelling poses severe risks, especially with food. There are a plethora of issues that can arise when eating your way through the wonders of the world.

First, food safety standards require a considerable investment in education. The unwitting chefs will follow their elders and adopt habits in their food preparation without fully gauging if these practices are correct. Signs, inspections and other methods for highlighting the importance of food safety that we take for granted in the U.S. are simply not forthcoming in the developing world. Let’s take my favorite family stand that sold a local delicacy in India. This is the lifeblood of the family and supports the needs of the men, women, and children in the home, thus their smile and eagerness to satisfy customers is admirable. Having a tried and tested recipe throughout the generations brings happy consumers in from far and wide. If you pin all your hopes on one dish then it better be good! Seeing a busy, bustling pakora stand in rural India is the surest sign that these pakoras are the tastiest in town but what are the risks? Without regular inspections by trained experts, it is left to the consumer to evaluate the potential risks. My food experience in India was an attack on the senses, despite constant concerns over safety. As a curry lover, I had ventured to paradise and the daily conundrum was whether a few bed bound days caused by non-existent food safety practices was a price worth paying. This is the paradox of travelling as truly immersing in local cuisines can give unimaginable tastes, but the worst few hours after.

Food Safety in Other Countries

Living in Latin America has been an eye opening experience regarding food safety. Much loved street pakoras have been upgraded to street tacos. This should be off limits, but who can turn down the greatest Latino export? Street stands adorn each square and busy street in cities as hungry consumers seek a cheap, easy, and delicious meal. Low prices and short wait times are seemingly perfect reasons to brush all worries of food safety to one side. These stands use extremely questionable meat and vegetables that could have been left idle for days. Each bite is a risk to the body as diarrhea looms large. There are countless books that explain the risks of eating street food. The main points of contention center around the storage of food, what ingredients are cooked together, ease of contamination, the cleanliness of cooking stations and temperature of cooking. All it takes is your body to not agree with one of these and your favorite street taco has turned very quickly into a nightmare. I have the pleasure of living two minutes from delicious street tacos and am yet to have any problems (knock on wood). It must be noted though that eating street tacos comes with a huge food safety warning.

Food Poisoning & the Traveller

My own battles with food poisoning in Latin America come with pupusas. The national dish of El Salvador ticks all the essential boxes for a delicious street food option. Pupusas are a thick corn tortilla stuffed with a savory filling, accompanied by a spicy cabbage slaw and tomato sauce. Key contentions here persist in the salad. Thoroughly washing vegetables before eating is the first, fundamental step to ensuring food safety. Not being able to see this done first hand poses serious questions about the cleanliness of the food. Further, as with tacos, there is no time frame for how long the salad has been left waiting. My own naivety led to a disaster as a parasite party used my stomach as their own dance floor. The ensuing carnage that happened in the following days were painful and frustrating. The feeling of powerlessness as you are left to fight the battle of parasites is overwhelming. Street food in Latin America does not come with obvious health warnings, such as signs. Instead, it is up to the consumer to use their own wit and decide whether it is worth the risk. Consequently, effectively utilizing all food safety education learnt at school can be the difference between basking in the glorious taste of the best pupusa of your life or spending the days after ruing the careless decision.

It is easy for an American to become complacent when travelling and become caught up in the mystical unknown. Becoming ill in the first days in a new continent is to be expected as the body adapts but to what extent should consumers be expected to suffer foodborne illnesses in the U.S? A misconception that foodborne illnesses can only happen when abroad is being debunked daily. Writing for MFS has given me a golden opportunity to learn about the dangers of food, especially in the U.S. Problems come from in all shapes and sizes for Americans. The biggest corporations and the most extravagant hotels are not safe from an outbreak. Each meal poses its own potential problems. Foodborne illnesses do not discriminate based on wealth and it can break at any location across the country. It would be foolish to say that you will never become the latest victim. I am forever shocked at the phenomenal damage that these microscopic bugs can cause. Multimillion dollar companies and tiny street vendors in Latin America are all facing up to the same lethal bugs. Without adequate training and precaution, consumers are left vulnerable to infections. Ultimately, It is the duty of stakeholders to implement sufficient warnings to ensure that the unrivalled joys of eating delicious food is not soured by a foodborne illness.

By: Billy Rayfield, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)