Tips for Avoiding Food Poisoning from Street Food


Street food is a part of daily life in many international cultures. For some, it is a livelihood; for others it is a way of staying connected to community news. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that street food is consumed by an average of 2.5 billion people worldwide each day, thanks to its low cost and convenience. In Latin America, for example, street food purchases account for up to 30 percent of urban household spending; in Bangkok, 20,000 street vendors provide 40% of the energy intake for city residents. 

Tourists often get a sense of authenticity and acceptance by eating local cuisine from street vendors; however, it is important to note that there are various health risks involved. The risk of serious food poisoning outbreaks linked to street foods remains a threat in many parts of the world, with microbiological contamination being one of the most significant problems. Food-borne pathogens are recognized as a major health hazard associated with street foods, the risk being dependent primarily on the type of food, and the method of preparation and conservation.

A lack of knowledge among street food vendors about the causes of food-borne disease is a major risk factor. Poor hygiene, inadequate access to potable water supply and garbage disposal, and unsanitary environmental conditions (such as proximity to sewers and garbage dumps) further exacerbate the public health risks associated with street foods. Improper use of additives (often unauthorized coloring agents), ecotoxins, heavy metals and other contaminants, such as pesticide residues, are additional hazards in street foods. For healthy travelers, some precautionary measures can minimize the risks of developing food poisoning:

Follow the Crowd  

Go where the locals eat—they know where to find the good stuff. Remember, though, that locals may be used to bacteria that your immune system cannot handle. Vendors serving high volumes of customers are turning over ingredients quickly which means the food has not been sitting around attracting flies and is more likely fresh. Ask your hotel front desk or a local colleague for good street vendor suggestions. 

Evaluate the Staff  

Before ordering the food, make sure to evaluate the cleanliness and sanitation practices of the food handlers and preparers. You should observe how sensitive the staff is about food hygiene by observing the staff to see if they have clean hands, are wearing appropriate and clean working attire, are covering their hair, wearing gloves, and whether or not there is a dedicated worker who is not touching the food and handling the money to avoid any sort of cross-contamination.

Contaminated Water 

Drinking water from street vendors can be a serious health risk. Some street vendors have been known to sell bottled water that appears to be purified but has really been refilled from local unfiltered source. When visiting a coastal region, be sure to research the cleanliness of the local fresh and ocean water supplies. You should also avoid eating raw river fish or seafood or river fish/seafood from just offshore as in many developing nations and coastal regions, locals use high tide as their toilet. 

Fresh Ingredients  

Always choose hot, cooked items and avoid raw street foods, especially protein products such as egg, meat, poultry, fish and fresh cheeses—be even more vigilant in third world countries.  Take extra precautions to make sure pork products are thoroughly cooked, because Trichinosis, though eradicated from the domestic industrial pork supply in the United States, is prevalent in other areas of the world.  Eat local, avoiding ingredients that are exotic for the region which are more likely to be spoiled (for example, ocean fish in an interior mountain region).

Carry Medications 

Even with precautions you can still find yourself feeling ill from bad food. Carry the appropriate medications for gastric disturbances, and see a doctor if symptoms worsen. Children, the elderly, and individuals with compromised immune systems are at higher risk of developing serious illness from unsanitary or poorly cooked food and are advised to avoid most street fare.

In case of a travel emergency, make sure to download the Global Travel Plus Mobile App. With just a tap of a button, you can be connected to our 24/7 Operations Team. The app also includes many features that may be helpful during your travels such as Pre-Trip Information, U.S. Pharmacy Locator, and Global Embassy Locator.
Posted: 11/15/2019 9:00:00 AM