Necessity is the mother of invention—not such a cliche when it comes to the history of modern food-safety practices

It was at the height of the 1960s race to the moon that NASA and the Pillsbury food company devised a plan to make food for space travel as safe as possible. The goal was to prevent food poisoning incidents on missions since, like travellers who’ve spent months planning a dream trip to India, NASA couldn’t afford their moon-bound astronauts getting sick. (Not to mention the inconvenience of getting diarrhea while aboard Apollo 11.)

By the 1980s, HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) was revolutionizing how public health officials looked at food safety and it’s now the standard program for all food producers and retailers—from farms, to slaughterhouses to restaurants—in Canada and many industrialized countries.

By the late ‘90s, the World Health Organization and the United Nations were pushing to have HACCP implemented in less developed countries, too, where foodborne disease takes a tremendous health and economic toll, and is a key cause of infant illness. Moreover, say the two world bodies in a just-released report on what they term “less developed food businesses,” the food industry in such countries often accounts for a large part of their gross domestic product. In India in 2002, it was estimated to contribute US$75 billion to the economy, representing 30 percent of its GDP.

The goal of taking HACCP worldwide may seem a tad ideal, yet HACCP is as much a way of thinking about food safety as it is about regulations and protocols. And this is where the adventure traveller can apply its principles. HACCP is designed to help food handlers recognize how food hazards happen in their particular establishment. Though the making of a hazard varies between places—restaurants and street vendors face different food safety challenges—it always occurs somewhere in the making, processing, storing, preparing, cooking or serving of any food product. With restaurants, HACCP shifted attention from dusty walls to scientifically identified risks of contamination. Is a dirty counter really an impending hazard to human health? At a sushi restaurant, where fish is eaten raw, it just might be a big one.

Of the seven HACCP principles, a key one any traveller can embrace is learning to identify ‘critical points’—places you think contamination can occur—anywhere you eat or buy food. While it’s best to start with food that has been safely produced and stored, most well-cooked food is safe to eat, says Dr. Massimo Marcone, food scientist and author of In Bad Taste: The Adventures and Science Behind Food Delicacies, as long as it’s not re-contaminated afterwards. (Some shellfish, which have biotoxins resistant to heat, are exceptions.) So when at a street vendor in Mexico, “look at his knife.” If it’s resting in a piece meat or even fruit, make sure it’s not used to scoop up your enchilada. “You can control that—you see that, you can make a determination.” As a general rule, foodborne illnesses don’t produce immunity and you can easily get another one again. Statistics show most travellers survive them, but you don’t want to get E. coli 0157:H7 on a mountainside in Nepal. It can cause kidney damage and, if untreated, even death. So stay vigilant throughout your trip and avoid being holed up in a bathroom while your elusive supply of toilet paper dwindles.

Dr. Marcone’s Tips on Food Vendor Safety

  • Don’t stop at first vendor you see: scout them first.
  • Look at the general cleanliness of the person cooking the food. Are there major food stains on his clothes? Are his hands clean?Look at the cleanliness of the area. Is food covered? Are flies buzzing around? Is there food on the ground that can attract insects and rodents? Is it near a gutter where rats can congregate?
  • Check and see if locals are eating from the vendor.
  • Determine how uncooked foods are being stored. Is food being maintained hot?
  • Look to see where utensils are placed when not in use.
  • Find out what the vendor’s source of water is. Is clean water being used for raw foods, dishes and hands?
  • Avoid pre-cooked foods waiting to be sold; always ask for food to be cooked in front of you, never look away during preparation.
  • Make sure cooked food is separated from non-cooked foods.
  • Use your senses: smell it, look at colour and texture, then take a small bite and if it tastes ‘off’ spit it out.

When Cooking Abroad

  • Peel it, boil it, cook it, or forget it! Never eat raw, uncooked meat or animal parts; avoid fruits and vegetables you can’t peel or cook.
  • Avoid re-contaminating cooked foods with your own dirty hands that can have fecal matter.
  • Get vaccinated for Hepatitis A; and for cholera if you’re going to less developed areas (one vaccine, Dukoral, also provides some protection against forms of E. coli).
  • Avoid shellfish, never eat it raw.

Common Foodborne Diseases Affecting Travellers

  • Campylobacteriosis (mostly associated with meat), E. coli, shigellosis, salmonellosis (including typhoid), listeriosis and cholera are bacterial diseases treated with antibiotics like Ciprofloxacin, so bring it with you (though there’s evidence drug-resistance is growing).
  • Giardiasis and E. histolytica infection are parasitic food infections.
  • Tapeworms, worm eggs in raw uncooked foods.
  • Toxins in shellfish.

Q&A with Dr. Massimo Marcone, Food Scientist, University of Guelph, Adventure Traveller

OP: Are there foods that should avoid because they’re dangerous for human consumption?

MM: Anything to do with the brain or spinal cord, as they’re carriers of zoonotic-type diseases [ones passed from animals to humans]. Foods that are not cooked, especially meats that are not cooked, should be avoided no matter what species they are, except foods like sushi, which have a time-tested safety. Any food which endangers a species should not be consumed, for moral reasons, under any circumstances.

OP: What about foods like puffer fish that we’re told to avoid?

MM: With puffer fish it depends on how it’s prepared. It would be best if one steers clear [of foods] that have inherent problems. But if it’s consumed in a very good restaurant, with a good track record, you can consume it. But for the average traveller I would avoid those types of foods altogether.

OP: Can the traveller count on local expertise when it comes to unfamiliar foods?

MM: In a lot of cases you can. But you have to examine the whole culture around it—who’s producing it and the conditions under which they’re producing it.

OP: You talk about food processes in less developed countries—for example, with bird’s nest soup you show how workers hand-pluck feathers from the nest which makes the soup. Is this kind of thing safe?

MM: The danger is adulteration, where they’ve put things in the food to make it weigh more. Of course, many of the [additives] are commonly eaten, so they’re rarely toxic. True, the areas they’re working in would not meet our standards, but with the processing the nest goes through—the cooking takes hours—any contamination would be destroyed.

OP: And you did say cooking and heat destroys most harmful pathogens?

MM: Yes, cooking destroys and renders most foods safe. It’s not one bacterium that causes disease, it’s when you get several of the same species that disease [happens]. There has to be a critical level of bacteria there—one E. coli 0157 is not going to cause disease, but if you had 20 in your food there’s potential. We call it “the infectious dose.” Heat can reduce it to a safe level.

OP: What about poisonous species like snakes, spiders and scorpions. Are they safe to eat?

MM: Yes, the venoms are heat-labile, which means the heat will ‘denature’ these compounds and they’re rendered harmless. In China I had hot scorpion soup.

OP: Some cultures use raw, uncooked blood in their food—what’s your advice about this?

MM: Never, ever! Blood is the vector of most infectious diseases, especially zoonotic-type diseases. Under no conditions, even if it’s offensive to the culture, even if the animal looks healthy, as certain diseases don’t show up until much later on.

OP: Is it OK to eat rat? Or civet cats which, in China, were thought to carry SARS?

MM: The very temperature of cooking would destroy the SARS organism. And the rats eaten in China are brown field rats. They’ve been taken from the fields or reared for cooking. [With] sewer rats you may be able to kill the bacteria, [but] the rat has been in high metal environments where there’s a lot of toxins and these bio-accumulate in the animal. That poses a problem.

NOTE: This information is intended as a guideline only. Always get individual medical advice from a doctor or travel health clinic before travelling. For more info on foodborne illness, see Health Canada’s Travel Medicine Program, WHO or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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