Food Safety Away from Home
More than half of all meals are eaten away from home. Since most restaurants carry insurance to protect themselves against food poisoning incidents, you have a responsibility to protect yourself. After all, foods aren’t labeled, not all staff have training in hygiene and food safety, and most restaurants aren’t inspected by a health department more than twice a year.
You want to see the world, broaden your horizons, and meet new people. What you don’t want to do is spend your entire vacation locked in the bathroom. Long voyages and jet lag, general fatigue, and change in climates or altitude all reduce travelers’ resistance to food-borne disease. The World Health Organization reports that almost half of all international travelers— even those in industrialized countries—will develop some sort of food-borne illness.
There is no vaccine for traveler’s diarrhea. Doctors used to prescribe a dose of antimicrobial agents as a preventative measure, but it also killed off the good bacteria in the gut. Over-the-counter medications like Imodium are also thought to be useless as a preventative measure. In a very few cases, your physician may suggest taking an antibiotic if you are traveling to a part of the world where the food or water supply is deemed very hazardous.
Consuming E. coliform-contaminated food or drink is the main cause of travelers’ diarrhea, which affects some 27 million adult travelers and 210 million children each year. Travelers’ diarrhea usually lasts four to five days, and is associated with nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and dehydration.
Don’t Drink the Water
Countries with poor sanitation usually have unsafe drinking water. Water can carry a range of infectious diseases, including cholera, typhoid fever, and dysentery. The other problem with water is that bad water might be used to wash produce and make ice. Keep your mouth closed while you shower and use clean water when you brush your teeth.
Bottled water is a must, but carefully look to see if the cap is properly sealed. Otherwise, unscrupulous sellers can reuse bottles and fill with tap water. If bottled water is not available, look for beverages made with boiled water, such as hot tea or coffee. If you are at sea level, water should be boiled for one minute, and three or four minutes if you are at higher altitudes.
The best prevention of traveler’s diarrhea may be information about the country. Your travel agent may be able to help, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers tips and suggestions on where to look for updated information on the country’s food and water supply.
If you can’t boil the water, then you will need to chemically treat the water. Chemical disinfectants can be found in large pharmacies. You can add iodine tablets or tincture to water, then let it stand for thirty minutes. Add a squeeze of lemon or lime juice to mask the iodine taste. Bottled carbonated beverages are a very safe bet, especially because it’s easy to know if the bottle has been tampered with.
While you want to be adventurous in a foreign land, choose where you eat carefully. Hotels and larger restaurants are more likely to be safe, although there is no guarantee. If you choose a small local restaurant or a street vendor, look around carefully. Is the area clean and does the operator cover the food, make it fresh, and keep it hot?
Watch out for seafood, especially if you cannot tell if the fish were harvested close to municipal sewage outlets. Unpasteurized milk and dairy products are associated with increased risk for traveler’s diarrhea, so don’t just avoid milk, watch out for cheese made from it as well. Raw meat, mushrooms, and shellfish can be risky.
Restaurants Close to Home
Contact your local health department and ask how often they inspect restaurants and how you can gain access to the data. Some departments will publish the information online or in the local newspaper. This information is public, and you should be able to find out how recently a restaurant has been inspected, what violations, if any, were found, and if the problems were remedied.
Protect your kids at school! Since most kids don’t wash their hands before eating lunch, include a hand sanitizer or moist towelette in your child’s lunchbox to boost the odds of busting the germs! Teach your children to sing two choruses of “Happy Birthday” or recite the alphabet while they are washing. A regular practice of handwashing for at least 20 seconds will go a long way to encourage lifelong healthy habits.
Be a Detective
When you arrive at a restaurant, look around. It should smell fresh and clean. Are the dishes, tablecloths, cutlery, and any equipment you can see well cared for? Does the staff look as though they care about their appearance? If you are served something that doesn’t look, smell, or taste right, do not eat it. Send it back to the kitchen, and do not return. Don’t take risks with your family’s health.
When you are eating in restaurants, the same rules apply. Don’t hesitate to ask specific questions about how the food is prepared. Always request that your food be thoroughly cooked. Don’t order meat rare, and if it is served to you rare, send it back. Other potential hazards include raw shellfish, oysters on the half shell, raw clams, sushi, sashimi, and lightly steamed mussels and snails.
As you would at home, stay away from any menu items likely to contain raw or undercooked eggs. Common offenders include dressings like hollandaise, homemade mayonnaise, and Caesar salad dressing and desserts such as chocolate mousse, meringue pie, and tiramisu.