Your travel plans are set, your passport is ready ... but do you know what might be lurking in the food on your plate as you travel outside the United States? There's a chance some of it may be hazardous to your health, especially if you take a vacation from proper food safety practices.
Repercussions range from mild (travelers' diarrhea) to serious (hepatitis A or typhoid, which can have long-term health effects) to fatal. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 3,000 people die each year of foodborne diseases in America, food safety-related statistics can be dramatically higher in other parts of the world. The World Health Organization estimates that 2 million people die each year from contaminated food or drinking water due to harmful bacteria, parasites, viruses and chemical substances.
Whether at home or abroad, proper hand-washing is an important key to preventing foodborne illness. Wash your hands often with soap and warm water, especially before eating and after using the bathroom. When soap and warm water aren't available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer instead. Pack it in your carry-on, purse or backpack for easy access.
Follow these additional tips to fend off food and beverage safety risks.
Before your international trip
- Plan ahead. Anticipate issues, food safety or otherwise, that could arise during your trip, starting with researching your destination.
- Pack smartly. Bring a travel health kit and carry your health insurance card in your wallet. Place prescription medications in your carry-on. Check the TSA website to determine what's allowed on airplanes.
- Visit a health-care provider before you go. Depending on where you're traveling, you may need new or updated vaccines or special medications.
When visiting a popular destination
- Germs travel beyond borders, including to popular tourist destinations in developed countries. Just as in the U.S., you can get sick from undercooked, raw and contaminated foods and beverages. It's always a good idea to avoid raw foods such as meat, fish, shellfish and eggs.
- Don't be fooled by appearance of cleanliness in well-traveled areas of the world. Whenever in doubt, don't drink tap or well water or anything that was made with it, including fountain drinks. Your best bet is to opt for sealed, bottled beverages.
- Steer clear of food that has been sitting at room temperature — that falls within the temperature "danger zone" where bacteria thrive. This includes not eating from a buffet-style service, since food may not always be held at safe temperatures and can easily become mishandled. Stick to cold or hot foods instead.
When visiting a remote destination
- Always err on the side of caution. Even though you may typically enjoy certain foods and beverages at home, your safest bet is to avoid the following during foreign travels to remote locations: meat served rare or at room temperature; raw, unwashed or cut-up fruits and vegetables, including salads; tap or well water and anything made with it, including ice; unpasteurized dairy; and raw or runny, cooked eggs.
- Only eat foods that have been cooked and served hot. Only drink beverages that are in manufacturer-sealed containers.
- Curb your adventurous foodie enthusiasm. While it may be tempting, skipping food from unknown street or roadside vendors can help keep you from getting sick. And, no matter how curious you are, it's safest to avoid exotic dishes such as prepared monkey, bat, unusual wild game and bushmeat.
What Happens if You Do Get Sick
Even if you play it safe and follow the rules for food safety, you still may find yourself sick while on an international trip. If you experience diarrhea, drink plenty of clean fluids to stay well-hydrated. If you experience a more serious illness, not all global destinations have adequate health resources, but the U.S. Department of State can help travelers locate medical services.Bon voyage and have a safe culinary adventure!