8 Food Safety Tips When Traveling Abroad

Reviewed by Barbara Gordon, RDN, LD
8 Food Safety Tips When Traveling Abroad

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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 U.S.?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 3,000 people die each year of foodborne diseases in America. The numbers are much 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. That’s about 1 in 10 people! Risks range from:

  • Mild: travelers' diarrhea.
  • Serious: hepatitis A or typhoid, which can have long-term health effects.
  • Fatal: illness caused by harmful bacteria, parasites, viruses and chemical substances.

Food poisoning tends to be most severe in impoverished to low-income countries. It is most common in Africa and Southeast Asia. The death rates from foodborne illness are the highest in these countries. Reasons include unclean or unsafe water supply, poor personal hygiene and subpar food production and storage conditions. If you're going to a developing country, follow these tips — even if you are staying at a five-star hotel.

Tip #1 Plan Ahead

  • Research your destination. Anticipate issues, food safety or otherwise, that could arise during your trip.
  • Find out about the water supply. 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.
  • Check the altitude. Some people can become sick above 8,000 feet, especially children.

Tip #2: Visit a Health-care Provider Before You Go

  • Find out about vaccines. Depending on where you're traveling, you may need new or updated vaccines.
  • Stock up on prescriptions. Get enough of your prescription drugs to last you for the trip. If need be, request a vacation exception to get enough for the whole time you are gone. Also fill prescriptions for any recommended special medications.
  • 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.

Tip #3: Pack Smartly

  • Carry hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. These can be used for washing your hands and cleaning surfaces.
  • 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.
  • Bring a travel health kit.And, carry your health insurance card in your wallet. Place prescription drugs in your carry-on. Check the TSA website to determine what's allowed on airplanes.
  • 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.
  • Rethink your usual choices. Even though you may typically enjoy certain foods and beverages at home, your safest bet is to avoid some of those favorites during foreign travels to remote locations.
  • 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.

Tip #4: Keep Your Guard Up

  • 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.
  • Rethink your usual choices. Even though you may typically enjoy certain foods and beverages at home, your safest bet is to avoid some of those favorites during foreign travels to remote locations.
  • 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.

Tip #5: Always Err on the Side of Caution

  • Avoid raw meat, fish, shellfish and eggs. 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.
  • Avoid raw produce, including salads, advises the FDA. This will reduce the possibility of coming in contact with fruits and vegetables that may have been rinsed with tap water and may be contaminated. However, thoroughly cooked produce, fruits with a thick, intact peel or covering you peel yourself (such as citrus fruits and bananas), well-cooked meat, poultry and fish, and dairy from large commercial dairies are considered safe by the FDA.
  • 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.

Tip #6: Watch Out for all Water Sources

  • If you have to ask, don’t drink it. A common question travelers ask when abroad: "Is the water safe?" The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, recommends avoiding tap water, including cocktails, ice and water to brush your teeth. Undrinkable tap water can be contaminated with amoebas, parasites and viruses including hepatitis.
  • Opt for drinks in manufacturer-sealed containers. For example, bottled or canned beverages and pasteurized dairy products.

Tip #7: Wash Your Hands

  • Clean your hands often. Whether at home or abroad, proper hand-washing is an important key to preventing foodborne illness.
  • Use soap or hand sanitizer. Wash your hands 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.

Tip #8: Take Care of Yourself if You Get Sick

  • Stay hydrated. 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.
  • Seek help if you need medical treatment. 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!

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