Street food: A traveler's best friend – and worst enemy
Street food can be the most delectable manifestation of a region's cuisine.
Perhaps some BBQ Duck in Bangkok;
A refreshing glass of fresh-squeezed sugar cane juice in Bagan;
Bruschetta prepared to order in the Saturday San Francisco Farmer's Market;
Or just a simple loaf of bread in France.
At its best, street food is fresh, tasty and typical of the cuisine of the country, city or neighborhood where it is sold. At its worst, it is a teeming mass of microbes poised to destroy the joy of a traveler's vacation, and stunt the health of local citizens.
Dr. Teresa Estrada-Garcia and her colleagues have been studying the microbiological safety of street foods in Mexico City for several years. They have found Salmonella, Vibrio cholerae, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, Aeromonas hydrophila and several varieties of pathogenic E. coli – including shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STEC) – in taco dressings, chili sauces and seafoods sold by Mexico City street vendors.*
Hispanic children who live in the United States along the border with Mexico and travel across the border regularly are at greater risk of contracting hepatitis than children who remain in the United States, according to the US CDC. Children who become infected are 17 times more likely to have eaten food from street vendors than children who remain hepatitis-free.
Mexico is not the only country where street food is a risky business. Similar problems have been reported in Nigeria, the Philippines, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Guatemala. Nor is the United States immune from this problem. A 2003 study of mobile food vendors in New York City found that more than two-thirds of the vendors engaged in one or more activities that violated New York's Code of Health. Violations including handling food with bare hands, not washing hands, not maintaining food at the correct temperature, and cross-contamination of ready-to-eat foods with raw meat or poultry.
Contaminated street food has facilitated the spread of cholera, dysentery and typhoid fever in countries where sanitation facilities are poor or nonexistent. Before eating food from a street vendor, consider the risk as well as the reward.
*Based on a series of four research articles kindly provided to me by Dr. Estrada-Garcia.
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