Food Safety While Traveling

Believe it or not, soon spring and summer will be here. Vacations, traveling, and enjoying local foods are just around the corner and are always a welcomed relief after the long, dreary winter.

Are there food safety issues you need to be concerned with across the United States? Foods that are commercially available must meet federal regulations and be made in a certified facility with the proper food safety plans in place. Restaurants must meet certain guidelines also, though some areas are more stringent than others. So you can feel reasonably confident about visiting a supermarket or restaurant.

So what are the food health risks?


Between January 23 and February 3 of 2017, there were 10 food products recalled around the U.S. There are food recalls somewhere in the nation almost every day. Many of these recalls are for regional items and not known outside of the region. Generally this is not an issue.

The recall process is in place to remove a recalled item from the shelves as soon as possible in order to keep the public safe. However, if you are coming back from your trip and find yourself feeling sick, you may want to check out the recall list and see if you consumed potentially problematic materials.

Fish and Seafood

Love spending some time in nature and catching your own dinner? Make sure you know the water quality before you eat that fish (or other seafood). Pollution levels in lakes are often much higher than the environment that surrounds them. Run-off from storms and rivers carry contaminants to the lakes where they can pile up. Nitrogen and phosphates can be from sewage leaks, run-off from agriculture, and residue from urban pesticide use.

Some lakes contain heavy metals, like lead and mercury, from industrial operations. While some of these contaminants dissolve and leave the water ways, some do not and can have a horrible impact on the local fish and wildlife. Eating fish contaminated with heavy metals can make people sick.

PCB, DDT, and mercury are highly resistant to breaking down in water and can be in water for decades. Because of this, they accumulate quickly and dangerously. A recent study found that the release of these items into the Great Lakes has decreased, but the levels found in fish from the Great Lakes has increased.

Ask around your vacation spot for information, keep an eye out for pipes dumping into lakes, and find a reliable source for testing information about local waters.

Foraged Items

Hiking a new favorite trail can lead to hunger and those bright red berries just off the trail are so tempting. They look plump and juicy, just calling your name. But unless you know exactly what you are about to eat, don’t. All kinds of plants are edible, and some are poisonous. It is important to recognize the difference between the two.

Avoid things with a milky or discolored sap and plants with thorns, spines or fine hairs. Beans, bulbs, and seeds inside pods shouldn’t be eaten if you are unfamiliar. Plants with foliage that looks like carrots, parsley, or parsnip should not be eaten because it could be hemlock, a poisonous plant that has killed people. A bitter or soapy taste or a smell of almonds are big warnings as are grain heads that have pink, purple, or black spurs. And, of course, plants with leaves in a three pattern, like poison ivy, should be avoided.

If you still want to eat foraged plants, or maybe you are in a situation where you need to, make sure to employ the Universal Edibility Test for unknown materials. Avoid plants by roadsides and residential areas as they could be contaminated with exhaust fumes and pesticides. Plants that grow in water contaminated with bacteria or parasites are contaminated themselves and should be boiled before eating. Do not eat any fruit that is showing signs of mildew or fungus. And mushrooms. Though they seem like an obvious choice, or you think it would be fun, they can be deadly. Some can attack the nervous system and effects, noticed days later, can be irreversible.

Farmer’s Markets

Farmer’s markets offer fresh, local fare and a chance to mingle with the producers themselves. Local, however, does not necessarily mean safe. Watch out for unpasteurized items. The biggest culprits are milk, cheese, juice, and cider. These items may look harmless, but they can contain listeria, salmonella, E. coli, and cryptosporidium. Veggies should be washed before consuming to take care of toxoplasmosis. Pay special attention to the farmer’s market and roadside stand items if you are pregnant, young, elderly, or immunocompromised.

Stay Safe While Traveling!

Whether you’re heading to the beach for Spring Break, or just taking a much needed few days away from the pressures of work and home life, keep these things in mind. Traveling should be about having fun and exploring new areas – it definitely is not about putting yourself at risk of getting sick.