Cultural Perspectives of Food Safety

Firsthand exposure has heightened my awareness of how entwined people are with the food they raise, consume, and enjoy, and it has deepened my understanding and appreciation of the rich diversity inherent in people's lived experiences.
Woman trying street food, food safety.

As a young child, I daydreamed. I possessed the superpower of invisibility, intrigued by the prospect of experiencing life from another viewpoint. It was only later, as a young woman, that my quest to see through another person’s lens and from different perspectives led me to travel. 

Immersive and solo travel experiences, in particular, left the greatest impression on me. During my twenties, I often relied on platforms like Globalfreeloaders, Couch Surfers, and Hospitality Club* for lodging, akin to pre-Airbnb arrangements, but usually free. This unconventional approach to travel led to some of the most memorable experiences I have ever had, starting friendships and enriching my interactions with people and places.

*Safety Note: Thorough vetting of hosts based on reviews and references is a must for any of the platforms listed above. 

Understanding Nuances & Variations

In recent years, when visiting unfamiliar destinations without connections, I have opted for home stays where families receive compensation for sharing their time, resources, and hospitality. Whether through alternative accommodations or other forms of lodging, each experience has offered insight into the daily lives of others. By observing and participating in different routines, I’ve learned about cultural nuances, including variations in food safety, preparation, and traditions. This first hand exposure has heightened my awareness of how entwined people are with the food they raise, consume, and enjoy, and it has deepened my understanding and appreciation of the rich diversity inherent in people’s lived experiences.

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought food safety would be a good post topic. I mean, what’s less romantic than sharing a bathroom with your true love as you experience a case of food poisoning together? Not much, so it’s probably a good thing to be mindful of food safety during travel. 

Legs Out

While visiting a friend in the Canary Islands, I recall two surprises. One was waking up to see an older naked man in the pool (turns out it was her dad), and the other was spotting a huge leg of ham with the hoof still intact on the kitchen counter.  My initial thought was, that can not be sanitary. For context, I grew up storing meat in the refrigerator or freezer, unless it was canned or beef jerky. However, I’ve since learned legs of ham are not uncommon to see in Spain and while there are many different processes to prepare ham (drying, curing, smoking, cooking, etc), this leg had gone through a lengthy curing and drying process creating an inhospitable environment for bacteria.

The USDA offers “A whole, uncut dry cured or country ham can be stored safely at room temperature for up to one year. After one year, the ham is safe but the quality may suffer.”  Though it is always good practice, especially during travel, to check how a product is prepared, some processes such as curing alone does not consistently eliminate parasites, such as Trichinella worms, and control processes vary from country to country.

That being said, cases of Trichinellosis are quite rare in the US, and much less common today in pork products than in the past. The bottom line is, if in doubt heat it up (160 degrees F for internal temperature) prior to consuming. 

Eggs Out

One day it occurred to me that some countries like the US refrigerate eggs, and many others do not. If you have chickens, you probably already know the reason, but initially when I first experienced this in Europe, I was mystified as to why I kept seeing non-refrigerated eggs in markets and in homes. In the US, I was accustomed to eggs being refrigerated, because the USDA mandated a cleaning process prior to sale. This cleaning process thins the shell, increasing susceptibility to bacteria, hence the refrigeration recommendation.  In contrast, many other countries sell unwashed eggs, preserving their natural protective coating and eliminating the need for refrigeration.

Street Food

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) advises travelers to consider avoiding street food, but “If you choose to eat street food, follow the same food safety rules as you would with other foods. For example, avoid raw vegetables and eat food cooked and steaming hot.”

As with most food safety related topics, there’s a lot that can be done to significantly reduce risk. When deciding if you want to check out local street foods, follow the same food safety guidelines and practices you would at home, and ask questions if you are unsure.  Some things I look for when choosing street foods include good hygiene practices, where it came from, the ingredients or preparation environment, whether it is raw or cooked, the water quality of the area, and if there are other people eating the food. A simple question of asking where the food or ingredients came from might open up the conversation further, or provide the seller an opportunity to express pride in their product.  

When making the decision to try some tasty street food or not, it’s also important to consider factors like age (>65 or <5 years old), whether you are immunocompromised, pregnant, have a sensitive stomach, or your level of comfort with trying new things. 

In the past 20 years of travel, I have not been sick from street food, and have found that trying such food are some of my favorite experiences of all time.  If you choose to try street food, I would echo to choose your menu wisely. In Cambodia, the most memorable dishes were what I found in markets and off carts offered by street vendors. I picked options that looked appealing, and were known to have low foodborne illness risk. For example, when picking frog legs, I noted they appeared clean and fresh, well-prepared, and that they were cooked right in front of me. 

When in doubt, remember bacteria does not like:

  • Highly acidic foods such as lemon and vinegar
  • Dry conditions 
  • Cold (<40 degrees F) and hot temps (>140 degrees F)

Also, make sure to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer before eating. For more food safety information, visit the CDC’s list of food and drink considerations for travel. 

To filter or not to filter, that is the question

Deciding whether to drink the tap water while traveling requires careful consideration. I typically consult locals for insight on water safety, supplementing their advice with online research and government and news updates. If unsure about water quality, I’ll carry a portable filter like the Lifestraw

While exploring Patagonia, where mountain water posed minimal contamination risk, I appreciated having the filter as a precaution. That being said, if you are going to drink fresh water, try to make sure the source is not below a popular campsite or area where there may be a higher run-off or contamination risk. 

In areas of suspected contamination, avoid swallowing water even during showers, or in the form of ice cubes. Alternatives to filtering include boiling, chemical treatment, or opting for sealed bottled water.

We’d love to hear if you have found any food safety practices to be particularly different from your norm. For general food safety considerations in travel, refer to the CDC guidelines. And remember, doing your own research will only better equip you and prepare you in situations where you need to put on your decision-making hat. Create Joy Travel is here to help in that department, too. 

Download our Safety Guide, here.


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