Food Safety When Traveling Internationally

By Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN
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According to a 2015 report released by the World Health Organization, about 1 in 10 people globally is sickened by food poisoning annually. Of the 600 million people who become sick, 420,000 die as a result of the illness. The regions with the highest incidence of food poisoning and highest death rates, including children below age 5, are Africa and Southeast Asia. Food poisoning tends to be most severe in impoverished to low-income countries and is typically attributed to an undrinkable water supply, poor personal hygiene and subpar food productions and storage conditions. With lower levels of literacy and education in these areas, it is difficult to provide education to help prevent the spread of food poisoning. As such, when traveling internationally, it is important to understand the conditions in which the food is grown so you can help prevent getting sick.

Before You Go

Do your research

Check if your destination has a drinkable water supply and medical care that is available in case you do become ill. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Travelers' Health and U.S. Department of State Travel Information are two excellent resources. Also, check the altitude, as people can become sick above 8,000 feet, especially children. Finally, check to see if your destination requires any vaccinations.

Pack nonperishables

No matter where you travel, it's easy to stash nonperishable food items in your carry-on (that aren't liquids). Although many airports offer healthy options, you never know when the next time you will be able to eat once you reach your destination. If you aren't sure if safe options are available, pack extra nonperishables in your luggage. Healthy foods to pack include:

  • Nuts (canned or sealed packages)
  • Nut butters (peanut, walnut, almond)
  • Instant oatmeal or muesli (will need hot water)
  • Canned or bagged tuna
  • Snack, breakfast or protein bars
  • Whole-grain crackers or pretzels
  • Powdered milk
  • Dried fruits

Don't forget over-the-counter medications

Instead of relying on international medications (or access to them), bring over-the-counter medications in case you experience gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea, heartburn or gas. Talk to your doctor about recommendations.

At Your Destination

If you're traveling to a developing country, it is extremely important to follow these guidelines in order to help avoid food poisoning even if you are staying at a five-star hotel.

Avoid tap or well water

Don't drink anything made with tap water, including cocktails, ice and water to brush your teeth. Undrinkable tap water can be contaminated with amoebas, parasites and viruses including hepatitis.

Safe beverages include:

  • Boiled water
  • Hot beverages (even if boiling is not assured, it's relatively safe)
  • Bottled water (that is sealed)
  • Bottled or canned beverages
  • Treated water — commercial iodine or chlorine tablets provide protection if added to tap water and allowed to stand according to directions
  • Pasteurized dairy products

Avoid raw fruits and vegetables

Raw produce grown or washed with contaminated water can transmit foodborne pathogens. Don't eat raw salads and uncooked vegetables.

Safe fruits and vegetables include:

  • Cooked produce that is still hot
  • Fruits washed in drinkable water that you have then peeled.

Other foods to avoid:

  • Raw or undercooked meat, poultry, fish and eggs
  • Unpasteurized dairy products or those from small, independent vendors
  • Foods left unrefrigerated for long periods of time including those containing dairy, meat, poultry and eggs (such as tuna salad or a cheese platter)
  • If you're unsure if a food is safe, avoid it.

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