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World Health Day: 5 Keys to Food Safety while Traveling

April 07, 2015

Unsafe or contaminated food is responsible for more than 200 diseases and is linked to 2 million deaths every year, according to the World Health Organization.

Food can contain bacteria, parasites and viruses that can make you very ill. Though the food supply is regulated in several countries, including the United States, globalization has streamlined the food production process and made it easier for products produced in one country to be transported to another. Globalization also has made the world smaller and everyone more interconnected, especially through food. Millions of people travel abroad every year, experiencing the culture of different destinations through the local cuisine.

When traveling abroad, food safety is especially important. This year, the World Health Organization is putting more emphasis on food safety globally by making it the focus of its annual World Health Day. The organization says people need to be more informed about what they put on their plates and whether it is safe to eat.

But this can be really difficult when you are traveling. If you are planning to go abroad this year, research your destination and get more information about what you should and shouldn’t eat before you leave. As a start, here five key things you should know about how to avoid foodborne illness when you travel.

Stick to Hot Foods

Depending on where you visit, the food industry may not be as well regulated as it is in the U.S. It’s important to be extra cautious and avoid uncooked foods while traveling. Do not eat raw fruits, vegetables and other raw food items, including salads, uncooked eggs and raw or undercooked meats. You also should avoid unpasteurized milk and dairy products such as soft cheeses and yogurt. Do not eat warm food or food that has been cooked and left unrefrigerated for several hours. This includes any items you might find at a buffet.

The CDC recommends sticking to the slogan “boil it, peel it or forget it,” which basically means that you should stick to fruit you can peel yourself (like a banana or orange) and eat food that is prepared steaming hot—or don’t eat it at all.

Avoid Food from Street Vendors

Though you may want to experience cuisine authentic to the culture you are visiting, you should avoid food from street vendors. In some countries, street vendors do not have the proper permits and may not undergo food inspections. Sometimes they may prepare food in unclean conditions or may not properly store it to prevent contamination. In these instances, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Stick to restaurants where you can be more certain the food is prepared with food safety in mind.

Be Careful About What You Drink

In many developing countries, the local water supply is not safe for consumption. While tap water is generally considered safe in the U.S., it can be a source of harmful bacteria and parasites that can cause traveler’s diarrhea in other parts of the world. You should avoid tap water and drinks with ice. Also, avoid coffee or tea unless you are certain that it was made with water that has come to a rolling boil.

When traveling abroad, be sure that your source of bottled water is a reliable one.  Many times, locals will fill up water bottles with tap water, seal them with super glue and then sell them as new to make money.

Any beverage that is in a sealed container or is carbonated is considered safe. Be sure to wipe off the top of the can or bottle as it is sometimes stored in ice that is unsafe.  Many travelers choose to bring their own supply of straws so they will not be putting their mouths on the container.

Practice Good Hygiene

No matter where you are, practicing good hygiene is important. Wash your hands thoroughly or use an alcohol gel with at least 60 percent minimum alcohol concentration before you eat or place your hands near your mouth.

When brushing your teeth or bathing, don’t swallow the water. Even a small amount of contaminated water can cause illnesses such as hepatitis, typhoid fever and cholera, so stick to bottled water for your toothbrush and avoid exposure to any open cuts in the shower.

What to Do if You Do Get Sick

If you follow all these precautions, you’ll likely avoid getting sick while abroad. However, in the event this does happen and you get traveler’s diarrhea or another foodborne illness, stay hydrated and drink safe, clean water. Most diarrhea symptoms will clear up within a few days, but if symptoms persist or if you suspect you have a more serious illness, go to a traveler’s clinic or a reliable local hospital to get medical attention, if one is available. Before traveling to your destination, it would be advisable to visit a healthcare provider experienced in travel medicine. You will be given medication to use for treatment of traveler’s diarrhea and instructions on how to properly use it. These medications will usually result in quick relief from symptoms. As soon as you return home, make an appointment with your regular doctor to get a check-up or health assessment.

For more information on food safety, please read this Guide on Safe Food for Travellers from the World Health Organization.

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