In restaurants where you question the sanitation, choose foods that arrive at your table too hot to eat immediately.
1. This rule is especially important when visiting developing countries. In such countries, intestinal illnesses among travelers are quite common. Most of the illnesses are due to viruses and other intestinal disease-causing microorganisms present in the food you eat. The neatness of an establishment, how busy it is, or who eats there are not particularly reliable guides for judging sanitation.
2. Sufficient heat kills organisms. The fact that food is piping hot tells you that it has just been heated to a temperature sufficient to kill the organisms, and that the food did not remain standing after preparation to be contaminated by flies or people’s hands. (Very rare exceptions to this rule are large reef fish found in the tropics: snapper, grouper, amberjack and others. These fish occasionally produce toxins resistant to heat. Properly prepared smaller fish are safe.)
3. Don’t contaminate your own food. The worse the sanitation, the more important becomes hand washing. Disease-causing organisms may be present on objects in gift shops, doorknobs, faucets in restrooms, and on peoples’ hands you shake. Soap and water is the best way to sanitize hands. Alcohol-containing hand cleansers are generally adequate when soap and water is unavailable.
4. Choose items such as hot soups and stews containing only small pieces of solids. Large pieces may remain insufficiently cooked in the center. Thin omelets and items boiled in oil or water are generally safe.
5. Avoid items that are difficult to clean in the kitchen. Removing all particles of soil from leafy vegetables is near impossible. Soil is a frequent reservoir for organisms. (Some major hotels in developing countries soak vegetables in disinfectant solution, making them safer to eat.) Avoid fruit that has been peeled by someone else. Peel your own fruit – after washing your hands.
6. Also avoid hors d’oeuvres, sandwiches and other items that require much handling in the kitchen. Food handlers in poor countries rarely use gloves, use gloves incorrectly, or may not have access to soap and water. Hors d’oeuvres and such are often prepared hours before serving, contain numerous ingredients including raw vegetables, and may be stored at room temperature.
Foods that ” turn” your stomach do not necessarily upset your stomach. Properly prepared and stored ultra exotic items such as snake soup, earthworms and insects may be difficult to get past your lips but are no more likely to make you ill than equally well prepared hamburgers, pizza and chicken wings.
7. Be among the first in line at buffets, especially outdoor ones in the tropics. Buffet-type food requires much handling to prepare and then remains on tables for hours, increasing the risk of lapses in sanitation. Outdoors, food is exposed to heat and insects. Placing large casseroles on beds of ice does not ensure sufficient cooling of the upper layers. Sternos may keep food only lukewarm. Desserts are generally eaten last, but are often placed on the table at the same time as other items. Organisms multiply rapidly in creamy products.
8. Never season foods with uncooked spices.The methods used for gathering, preparation and storage of spices contribute to contamination by rodents and insects. Folklore in Mexico and elsewhere claims that spicy sauces and lemon juice kill organisms and make food safe. Not so. Only spices added before cooking are safe. Be leery of dips such as guacamole; they often contain raw vegetables.
9. In poor countries street food deserves its negative reputation,says the World Health Organization (WHO). While the food may be appealing, authentic and cheap, sanitation is a serious problem. Stalls, carts and equipment are generally dilapidated and virtually impossible to keep clean. Vendors have little or no knowledge of sanitation, buy the least expensive raw products available, lack refrigeration, and rarely have access to safe water for cooking, dishwashing or hand washing.
Ceviche, a cold, raw fish soup popular in parts of South America and often served by street vendors, causes more intestinal illness than any other single food anywhere, says the WHO. To start, fish are often caught in nearby polluted water.
10. “Conventional/unexciting” restaurants may be safer than “quaint” local ones. International hotel chains, for example, have strict rules on avoiding food contamination and have experts overseeing operations: buying from reliable retailers, purifying water, using refrigeration and mechanical dishwashers, and teaching employees the principles of hygiene, for example. But power outages, difficulty in maintaining equipment, and staff vague on hygiene require careful food selection even at such restaurants.
You can avoid most of the errors in sanitation made in local restaurants by preparing your own food when traveling. Many hotels that cater to families offer kitchen facilities. Many children who find food shopping at home “boring” find it is fun overseas.