Traveling around the world can be an adventure. It can also be a health hazard if you do not take the proper precautions, especially when enjoying the local food and drink. Here are some of the important precautions and things to watch out for.
Americans, Europeans, Japanese, Australians, Canadians and people in developed nations generally enjoy safe food and water due to regulations and well-developed health standards. Most of the rest of the planet does not enjoy this luxury. As a country develops, so do its health standards. Local people may not even be aware of the problem because generally speaking, their bodies are used to the local bacteria and are not affected. The jokes about getting Montezuma’s Revenge when drinking the local water in Mexico is serious — and a serious threat to vacationers. Usually the larger cities that cater to travelers are a bit safer, but not always.
I spent 20 years working for an international company and had the opportunity to travel around the globe on business. Over the years, we learned how to select safe food and beverages. For the most part, we learned the hard way and always shared our knowledge with newer employees. Here is the advice I have to offer.
- Do not trust the quality of the water in developing countries. Never order water with a meal and never order ice with a beverage. The ice is made form the water and freezing does not kill the bacteria. When ordering beverages, it is better to drink coffee or tea or a well-known beer or soda pop–without ice.
- If you do not trust the local water, do not get it into your eyes or mouth when showering and do not brush your teeth with it. When traveling in China, Taiwan, Mexico and many countries, it is better to brush your teeth with bottled water or soda pop. Most international hotels have refrigerators or vending machines that offer bottled water and soda pop. You will likely find Coke, Pepsi, 7-Up and other western brands that are safe to use. Read the story below to see why soda pop is sometimes the better choice.
- Only eat fresh foods and vegetables that are well cooked or those that you peel yourself, such as oranges and bananas. Many restaurants offer sliced fruit selections and salad bars. Pass these up. The fruits and vegetables are washed using the local water and cooks only have local water to use to wash their hands — if they wash their hands at all.
- If you have a choice between seafood or beef or poultry, avoid the seafood unless you know it is very well cooked. Seafood can not only be full of bacteria, it also absorbs the toxins in poluted water and can be full of parasites. If you are ordering beef or poultry, make sure that is is well cooked.
- Do not drink milk products. In developed Western countries, milk is pasteurized to kill bacteria. In most countries it is not.
Li>As tempting as it may be, do not buy food or drink from local street venders.
Some Real Life Lessons
If you think the advice offered is an overreaction, you will no longer think that way once you get hit with food poisoning or dysentery while traveling. These food and water induced illnesses can completely disable you and ruin a vacation or business trip. In some cases, it can kill you or cause permanent kidney or liver damage. Parasites can also be an issue that results in serious problems.
On one trip to China we were accompanied by a travel newbie who did not believe our warnings about the local water. He told us that he had been brushing his teeth with local water and through we were pulling his leg. We stopped in a restaurant for lunch and all of us ordered Cokes without ice, except Mr. Newbie. He wanted ice despite our warnings. Guess who got sick that night and puked his guts out? Not all of the water is bad, but all that you need is one sip of tainted water to become deathly ill.
During a business trip in Hong Kong we went out to a very upscale restaurant. One of their specialties was a dish called Drunken Shrimp. To make Drunken Shrimp, live shrimp are placed in a wok on your table. Alcohol is added and the shrimp thrash about a bit until they become intoxicated. The mixture is then lit and the shrimp are cooked alive. The problem is that they are not cooked very well and several people in our group became deathly ill. One guy was so sick that he passed out in the shower that night and woke up 4 hours later with the water still running. Not everyone became ill, probably because not all of the shrimp were tainted.
Food poisoning does not always affect you immediately. One of our guys didn’t show up for work for two days after returning from a trip to India. One of his friends was sent to check on him and found him laying incoherent on the floor in his home. He was rushed to the hospital and recovered after several days. he said he didn’t eat on the plane because he felt a bit queasy, but didn’t get really ill until he returned home.
I previously mentioned the issue with bottled bottled water and why you cannot always trust bottled water, even if it has a producer’s seal on the bottle. First, try to choose a recognized brand that is not produced from the local water. Second, you cannot always trust the hotels in developing countries. I once stayed in a major hotel in Taipei, Taiwan. We stuck to the rules for food and drink and no one got sick. We used only the bottled for brushing our teeth. One day I stopped back at the hotel to pick up something I needed for a meeting. As I was leaving the room, I passed a janitor’s closet and heard water running. I looked inside to see a guy squatting on the floor by a slop sink. That is a sink on the floor used for draining mops. The guy was refilling the empty water bottles from the rooms with water from a spigot at the slop sink. Next to him was a heat gun that he was using to place heat shrink seals back on the bottles of water.