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Pack Your Food (Safety) When Traveling

Summer is coming…

Which means vacations are coming too. Travelers may know what to pack and how to prepare. However, some destinations may require planning for things we don’t really consider – like food safety.

Food safety practices in some parts of the world are not held to the same standard as in the US. How food is handled, cooked, and stored; how often (and if) people wash their hands; and the quality of the food served, are all things to consider when traveling. Foodborne illnesses like Hepatitis A are spread through poor hand washing. Couple that with foods that are not cooked or are washed with contaminated water (think salads, sliced fresh fruit and veggies, and sandwiches), and you can end up with a miserable experience.

  • When buying bottled water, make sure the cap is sealed. Locals in some countries will take used water bottles out of the trash, refill them with water, and sell them to tourists. So buy bottles from the store or take them from the hotel. If you want to help not contribute to the practice, smash your water bottle before throwing it away.
  • Avoid ice in your drinks unless you know that the ice is made from bottled water. This means you’ll have to get used to drinking warm-ish beverages.
  • Use bottled water to brush your teeth, gargle, and wash your face. Tap water may not be clean, even in hotels. Higher-end hotels have improved their filtration systems, but it’s still considered safer to use bottled water for hygienic practices. Avoid drinking the water while showering.
  • If you want to reduce waste, you can purchase re-usable water bottles that come with built-in filters, or use iodine-based drinking water tablets to disinfect water.
  • When purchasing canned or bottled beverages, wipe the outside clean with bottled water, a sanitizing wipe, or sanitizer. Let it dry before opening.
  • Wash and sanitize your hands often. That means wash with soap and water, then use sanitizer before and after eating and after touching anything. Soap and/or hot water may not be available so the sanitizer helps as an extra precaution.
  • It’s OK to eat at local restaurants, but make sure to order food that is cooked thoroughly. Avoid raw or undercooked food, food served warm, or food left out buffet style (unless it’s piping hot). As for fruits and veggies, only eat them cooked, fried, or steamed. Choose raw whole fruit that comes with a thick peel that can be removed, like bananas and melons. Avoid raw whole fruits with edible peels like apples and pears. Avoid salads – leafy greens are hard enough to clean, and even harder when the water is already contaminated. Be mindful of the food even in hotel restaurants.
  • I know there is nothing like drinking fresh milk, but avoid unpasteurized dairy products because of the risk of pathogens. Locally made ice cream and cheese may be made with unpasteurized milk. You can buy these items from a store.
  • Pay attention to how items are laid out in an eating establishment. For example, I was on a tour bus that stopped at a roadside restaurant to get some food. On the table were napkins in a holder and a cup full of unwrapped straws. It was a safe bet that the straws were washed and re-used. There were also flies buzzing around, landing on the napkins and food. So I bought a bag of chips, ordered french fries, and used my own napkins.

What do you do if you think you have food poisoning overseas? Drink plenty of water, rest, and eat very light food if you can keep it down. If vomiting or diarrhea lasts several days, you’ll need to get medical attention. US embassies overseas can help with health needs abroad. Pack OTC medicine like anti-diarrheals and fever reducers. You can avoid some illnesses like Hepatitis A by getting vaccinated before you travel. Plan vaccines 6-8 weeks before travel. For more tips, travel information, and immunizations, visit the CDC’s Travel page.

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