Whether you're in Lima or London, food safety is always a concern for the traveler. Should you drink a margarita in Mexico City or eat a salad in Thailand? We asked Bradley A. Connor, M.D., medical director of the New York Center for Travel and Tropical Medicine, for his thoughts on everything from drinking water to red tides.
Q: In which countries does food contamination pose the greatest threat?
A: Developing countries. Anywhere outside the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan has a higher instance of bacterial infections. The risk ranges from moderate to high, depending on the country.
Q: What foods should travelers avoid in foreign eateries?
A: Stay away from any food that may contain contaminated water, such as raw salads, fruits, and vegetables. Steer clear of street vendors. Eat food that has been freshly prepared, is thoroughly cooked, and is still piping hot.
Q: Is there any truth to the theory that spicy food is less likely to cause harm because spices kill bacteria?
A: No, never. In fact, hot sauces are breeding grounds for bacteria, even those that are hottest to the taste.
Q: What about alcohol?
A: Alcoholic drinks made with contaminated ice or water are just as dangerous as nonalcoholic contaminated beverages. The alcohol doesn't kill bacteria or other microorganisms.
Q: This leads to the perennial travel safety issue: water. Can you drink water in developing countries?
A: Drink bottled carbonated water. Carbonation indicates that the bottle has been properly sealed at a bottling plant. Another safe bet is water that has been thoroughly boiled and is served very hot, such as in tea or coffee.
Q: Should travelers be concerned about red tides, mercury pollution, and toxins that make seafood unsafe to consume?
A: Travelers can reduce their risk by arranging for proper shots before departure. For example, a hepatitis A vaccine is essential if you intend to eat fish and shellfish abroad. Although the vaccine only requires one shot, a booster is recommended to maintain its effectiveness. Also, travelers should never eat raw or undercooked fish or shellfish, which can be dangerous even in the United States.
Q: What can travelers feel safe eating?
A: Fruits and vegetables they peel themselves with clean dry hands are generally safe. Breads and crackers are usually not a source of food poisoning.
Illustration by Melinda Beck
This article was first published in November 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.