is street food safe?

Is Street Food Safe? How to Avoid Food Poisoning when Eating Street Foods

You are strolling along the downtown streets in one of your favorite holiday destinations and you can’t resist the luscious sight and delicious aroma coming from a seemingly endless chain of street food vendors.

As much as everything looks appealing to the eye, you still have your reservations about street food.

This could either be due to some not-so-pleasant past experience with street food or your personal beliefs from other people’s experiences, or just the fear of the unknown.

This is very much understandable because matters of food safety should never be taken lightly. Food poisoning is real and can easily ruin a fantastic vacation.

That is why I delved into this topic about the safety of street foods with some simplified scientific facts and experiences to clear the air about the safety of the foods in our streets.

Generally, most of the world’s street food is extremely safe if prepared, served, and consumed in aseptic or hygienic conditions.

The resulting food poisoning that may be holding you back from trying out those delicious street foods can be avoided by following a few simple steps that I will be discussing here.

What is Street Food?

This might sound obvious but you need to know whether what you are about to eat can be categorized as street food before you take these measures.

I will use the World Health Organization (WHO) definition because it is an authoritative reference since it has also published important essential safety requirements for global street food vendors.

WHO defines street food as any food or beverage that is prepared and sold by vendors in streets or public places for immediate consumption or for later consumption without further preparation or processing.

This definition is important because of the last part that says “without further preparation or processing.”

That part makes us exclude processed and packed foods sold in open places, or processed food ingredients, or even bottled soda.

Some Common Street Food Hotbeds in the World

It is almost impossible to make a list here because every country in the world has its own street food culture which they believe is the best.

As a traveler, you will also agree with me that the best street cuisine you ever tasted is the one you are yet to taste.

For the adventurous travelers who like stepping out of their food comfort zones, there are places that will always stand out whenever the word street food is mentioned.

I will not make a list here because just like any other list on the internet, my list will be biased and subjective since it will be based on personal tastes and preferences.

But we all know some regions that will never escape the mouths of avid street cuisine lovers.

The Mediterranean street food culture is one of my favorite. They just have so much pomp, enthusiasm, and color around their food that is extremely infectious.

The word ‘infectious’ here has nothing to do with diseases or food poisoning… just good vibes and special culinary experience on seafood, Kabobs, Shawarma, Falafel, and their signature gyro.

Almost the whole of Asia is littered with some of the most delicious street delicacies in the world.

From the large portions of spicy vegetarian Indian street food, to the fishy Japanese street food, the chili-toped Thai street food, the dumplings of Chinese street food, the steaming Vietnamese bowls, the soups of Korean street food, and the organized food stalls in Hong Kong.

In Europe, Rome, Istanbul, London, and Paris are some of the renowned cities with buzzling street food activities.

I particularly have some memorable personal experience with the Indian street food (the famous Hyderabad Biriyani) and some amazing street foods from Krakow, Poland during my trips to these countries in 2018 and 2019.

Indian Street Food
Me about to sample street tea in India

Most African cities such as my hometown Nairobi, Durban, Lagos, Cairo, Marrakech, and Dakar have so much to offer when it comes to street dining.

In my hometown Nairobi, your Kenyan culinary adventure will not be complete if you haven’t tasted two of our popular street foods; Nyama Choma and Mutura.

In America, nothing comes close to the food experiences in the streets of Portland, Miami, Cartagena, Kingston, Rio de Janeiro, and Mexico City.

Why is Street Cuisine Preferred by Travelers?

One thing that every traveler will reminiscence about their travel experience is food. No one wants to go to a new place and miss out on the culinary street feasts.

Street food has always been a good way of expressing different cultures. It is also a great way to unwind and meet ordinary locals doing the best local craft.

Other than being cheap and affordable to the common person, most of the world’s street food is actually safer than foods sold in some hotels and restaurants.

You get unique tastes and flavors from these foods which also come with a great deal of convenience.

Street foods have helped large cities meet the nutritional requirements of both residents and travelers by supplementing food services offered by big hotels and restaurants.

Also, if we look at portions, nothing excites street food enthusiasts more than the large portions served in the streets.

Why Street Food is deemed unsafe?

Well, as much as our stomachs are self-regulating as described earlier in my previous article here, there are always limits to how much they can handle.

The limits vary from one individual to another. This limit is what determines the tolerance levels to food poisoning bacteria.

Since street food vendors operate under very minimal or no regulations at all, there is always the risk of some individuals flouting the very basic food hygiene rules such as washing hands, covering foods, or separating cooked and uncooked foods.

How to handle street food
How to handle street food

Minimal regulation may also create an avenue for vendors to ignore food safety protocols when purchasing raw materials and ingredients for their craft.

The cooking equipment and utensils used can also become food contaminants if not properly cleaned and handled.

Since the food is prepared and served in the streets, there is always the risk of contamination from airborne microorganisms and flying insects.

Although all the above mentioned factors are valid concerns to consumers, the food safety concerns about street prepared foods are mostly driven by consumer attitude and perception.

Research has shown that this attitude is driven by people’s income levels, education, age, gender and knowledge of food safety.

The Temperature Danger Zone and Time Factors

One of the most important factor in food safety is the temperature and time combination under which food is cooked and held.

I will write about this in details in a separate article because it involves some very interesting technicalities and daily applicable practices that cannot be adequately captured here.

In summary, every food has to be cooked under the right temperature and held under some specific temperature ranges that science has proved to be safe for food.

The temperature danger zone is a temperature range where bacteria are known to thrive and multiply rapidly in food.

This danger zone falls between temperatures of 40oF (5oC) and 140oF (60oC).

It is advisable that any hot food prepared and held above or below this temperature range be disposed within a maximum of four hours.

The question here is; do street food vendors know this, let alone adhere to these protocols?

Can those large food holding bowls and huge piles of food be comfortably kept out of the set temperature danger zone for food?

This can be one of the critical factors you should be using to judge your street food vendor. It could help you avoid ruining your next culinary experience.

Is Street Food Safe for People with Allergies and Intolerances?

Food lovers with intolerances and allergic reactions have special dietary demands that may be difficult to be met by foods from unregulated street vendors.

The methods of food preparation in the streets are usually meant to take care of large groups of people in the shortest time possible.

Considering what I talked about earlier on temperature danger zone and time factors, you can understand why most street food vendors would want their foods prepared and consumed within the shortest time possible.

This could mean poor separation of utensils, ingredients, and raw materials resulting in cross-contamination.

For food lovers with allergies and intolerances, you can never be sure about the safety of the food you eat in the streets unless you know the place very well or you do thorough vendor research and questioning before committing to try out the food.

What to do and What to Avoid

Until this point, I am sure you are either alarmed or alert about your next street food experience.

From a food safety perspective, I will say there is no course for alarm on the safety of foods in the streets.

This is a culture that has been there and there are very few reported incidents worldwide pointing to the safety of street made food.

By taking a few precautions that I will outline here, you should be able to enjoy your street food without any worries.

Guidelines

What To DoWhat Not To Do
Carry out a proper research on the food and food vendors. Better still, have a native guide you on what and what not to eat.Avoid foods that are not hot or not chilled or frozen. If you have to cool or thaw the food, eat it within an hour.
Eat fruits that can be peeled. Remember to wash them before peeling.Avoid putting ice in your drinks and drinking water that is not bottled or sealed.
Eat in places that are popular with locals. The more the customers, the safer the place since it means the food will not be held for long under the temperature danger zone.Try to avoid milk and milk products such as cheese, yoghurt, and milk shakes unless they are aseptically packed and served.
Make sure the food is well cooked and covered during preparation and storage.Stay away from uncooked street foods such as salads, sauces, sushi, raw vegetables, and fruits that cannot be peeled.
Check out for unhygienic stalls and vendors. Look for freshness and be ready to turn away if you feel something is not right.Avoid vendors who clearly look unhygienic. This is easy to spot because no one doesn’t know what a dirty place looks like.
Some people will advise you to carry your own cutlery but I think that will take away the adventure and make you look snobbish to locals. Just double check that the cutlery you are using is well cleaned.Avoid food that is not covered or food that is opened in your absence. For instance, if you come across a coconut make sure it is opened in your presence before you eat it.
Try to eat in stalls that are specialized in the foods they serve. This mostly guarantees freshness of the foodAvoid vendors with many variety of foods, especially those stocking cooked and raw foods in one place.
If you are allergic or intolerant, find a way of always communicating this to the food vendors. Translation cards could be important here.Avoid eating at times when the natives are not eating. Try to go with the local meals schedule.
Carry some food poisoning medication and antacids. They may come in handy if all the steps above fail to protect you from unsafe food.Don’t completely avoid street food!

As usual, I would love to hear your experiences about that memorable street feast you had during your adventures.

3 thoughts on “Is Street Food Safe? How to Avoid Food Poisoning when Eating Street Foods”

  1. Pingback: Food Trends 2021: 7 Important Trends To Watch in the New Year and Beyond

  2. Nice piece there.
    With need to save and cut on expenditures most people in Africa urban centres end up in street joints to take care of their stomach needs. Most rely on the vendors for the safety procedures when handling the food , and to minimize any infection or food poisoning , food should be served when hot.
    Street food culture is set to steadily rise in Africa cities with the rise in population/urbanisation.

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