Food in China that won't kill you?
October 7, 2008 6:37 AM   Subscribe

My (adult) daughter is about to go on a 3-month theatrical tour of China. Not that I have any control over this, but should I be worried about the food additives scandal? She eats prepared/boxed and restaurant food only on these tours. What can she do to protect herself against the crap they allow into their food supply?

No lectures about her being an adult please. I'm her mom; I can't help worrying.
posted by nax to Travel & Transportation around China (13 answers total)
Millions of tourists visit China each year and do not die. Short of packing a couple hundred pounds of non-perishable food from home, she will not be able to sustain herself without gorging on local, delicious cuisine.

The same rules apply for China as they do anywhere else: eat smart. Street foods are totally fine, but follow the crowds; a long line means good, safe food. If something feels off, don't eat it. Does it look and smell fresh? It probably is.

She should expect and plan on getting sick at least once. Traveler's diarrhea, nothing too bad. Pack some Imodium or Pepto. This is par for the course.

There's always the option of fast food. Places like McDonald's and KFC will no doubt exist where she's going. I can't recommend it, but it might be more familiar, and hence comfortable, to eat somewhere like this if she's feeling off.

Tell her to ask the locals for restaurant recommendations when she's not corralled into a place. Hotel employees get asked all the time, and can often point you to a favorite place.

Watch an episode of "No Reservations" with Anthony Bourdain, or "Bizarre Foods" with Andrew Zimmern if you haven't already. They travel across the globe dining on local cuisine without dying -- both have been to China. It will make you feel better about your daughter doing the same.
posted by nitsuj at 6:55 AM on October 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I may be wrong, but I think the contamination of food stocks was limited to dairy products (baby milk, milk chocolate etc). If she wants to be super-safe, she could probably just not eat any yoghurts etc. It's also likely that if they're staying in hotels catering to Westerners they'll be eating imported food anyway.

But yeah, as nitsuj says, she'll be fine - eat smart and expect some rumblings of the tummy purely from being in a new bacteriological environment (hell, I get traveller's tum occasionally going to France, and that's just across the water from me).
posted by Happy Dave at 7:10 AM on October 7, 2008

Thirding the pepto. I have heard that it can be taken regularly before (and during) a trip abroad to protect against traveler's sickness.
posted by jquinby at 7:16 AM on October 7, 2008

Nthing what everyone else has said. More than that, every newspaper and television channel has been talking about the melamine thing continually since it first reached public awareness. Stores quickly and swiftly discarded all (known) contaminated products. And while melamine isn't the greatest thing to ingest, adults of a normal size would have to drink a few liters of contaminated milk a day to develop symptoms. A billion or so people, including me and a few other Mefites, live and stay living in China every day; your daughter will be fine.
posted by msbrauer at 7:37 AM on October 7, 2008

My sister in law has been in China for 5 years and has never had any problems eating the food. She comes home every summer and eats our food and never has problems either so your daughter will most likely be OK with just some Imodium and Pepto assuming she can take it with her/find it there.

The other posters pretty much have it down. Be smart about it and prepare.
posted by ChazB at 7:39 AM on October 7, 2008

I'd like to note that eating at restaurants is no way to guarantee a food's safety. I'm not trying to scare you or anything, but restaurants where many people go to can still have sanitary concerns (just less likely). Restaurants that are slightly more on the pricey side for a meal (think, RMB30+/$4+ in large cities or touristy areas, RMB20+/$3+ in less popular areas) are probably going to be less risky as well, but there is still potential for issues. There are also restaurants that are cheaper (about RMB 5/$0.75 for a meal) and still clean -- don't tell your daughter to lose opportunities to eat delicious stuff just because it is cheap. Just use common sense, if something looks really fishy then avoid that place. If it looks fairly safe and clean, the workers/chefs look like they know what they're doing, and the restaurant is a little pricier, that'll give you the best chance to come out okay.

Also keep into consideration that other factors can cause sickness. For example, higher pollution, differing weather patterns, different "taste" of water, etc. I find that usually it is not one factor that contributes to one getting sick abroad, it's usually a combination of all these things.

I lived in Beijing for about 13 months and spent about 6-7 weeks of that time traveling. I didn't get sick during my travels, but got sick about every month and a half while in Beijing. These were all minor sicknesses (lasting a few days at most) aside from one time where I had a serious case of food poisoning and had to go to the ER (104.5 Fahrenheit fever). Sadly right after I recovered from that, I also had pinkeye for two weeks... but that's an extreme case!

Pack some basic medicines and bring hand sanitizer. Make sure your daughter carries around a roll of toilet paper or a bag of tissues in her bag. Don't go overboard with the packing, basically all essential things required to live in China comfortably are already there, just tell her to pack anything to make her feel more at home moreso than basics such as soap/shampoo/toothpaste/more than one towel/etc.

Also, I would encourage your daughter to try McDonald's at least once while she is over there. They have some different menu items and in my opinion, the overall quality is actually better over there than in the States. I recommend the "taro pies". (In the States, it looks like someone arranges your Big Mac by tossing toppings and the top bun onto the bottom bun, 10 feet away.)

I also highly recommend trying Sichuan food, dim sum, and Beijing Duck.

Good luck!
posted by NeoLeo at 8:20 AM on October 7, 2008

Best answer: Having studied the American food law regulations that stipulate how much contamination is allowed in different foods, I've gotten the impression that some things are more easily adulterated than others. Milk is a whole food, but from farm to table there is a lot of room for contamination. Roast potatoes...not so much. When I'm traveling in countries with lax food regulations I eat a lot of cooked (cooking gets rid of bacterial pathogens) whole vegetables and whole cuts of well-done meat. When I'm in a place like Belarus I don't eat things like sausages, canned food, milk, boxed food, eggs over easy, etc. I feel that a street stand with a lot of regular customers selling something weird, but whole, is probably safer than sausage from a store in a place like that.
posted by melissam at 8:23 AM on October 7, 2008

The particular contaminant, Melamine, is not that bad for you. It gives babies kidney stones (pretty horrible, I would think) but it's not going to kill an adult.
posted by delmoi at 8:52 AM on October 7, 2008

As an adult, with limited exposure, the risk from various contaminants is going to be limited unless there's a preexisting condition that exacerbates things.

You can probably assume she'll be consuming various unsavory chemicals like melamine at some point; given how it's been moving through different elements of their food supply I frankly doubt they've actually stopped the adulteration of products -- it's just that now they're nailing people for adding it to milk. The scrap melamine market is still there, and the reasons for adding it to products are still there, so someone will be adding it to foodstuffs. Same goes for other weird industrial byproducts. I still recall drinking bottled water near Chonqqing that proudly advertised their strontium content ("now with added strontium!"). Really. I kept the label.

...having said that, who cares? The amount consumed will be minimal at best, the risk to adults is low, and there's too much nifty food to eat. Especially in Sichuan. Man, they've got some nifty local specialties there. Mmmm.

So, upshot: don't worry unless she's had kidney or liver failure.
posted by aramaic at 8:59 AM on October 7, 2008

Best answer: I lived in China for three years, and it was the restaurant food that made me sick, not the street food. Stick to popular street / local places and she should be fine - although most people will get an upset stomach at some point, usually because of the spiciness of the food rather than contaminants!
posted by jetgrrl at 9:07 AM on October 7, 2008

Here's a great article: Demystifying Food in China: An Introduction
posted by nitsuj at 11:31 AM on October 9, 2008

Having lived in China for some time, I try to make as much of my own food as possible. However, if your daughter is limited to eating out alone, I'd suggest going for street food whenever possible and steer clear of Western-style food in most cases. Often, restaurants are good at preparing Chinese-style dishes but might not be as knowledgeable about the Western dishes, for example how to prepare a hamburger (thoroughly cook meat, scrub lettuce, etc). Just my experience.

Local packaged snacks are generally safe, but if something causes stomach discomfort - don't eat it again. Carry pepto and hand towels at all times. Fruits and veggies are great. Lots you can't find back in the states. Invest in a cheap knife and peel all you can. Avoid strawberries as they tend to leech in chemicals.

Oh, and don't drink the tap water. Shower water will be hard as well, so consider bringing favorite shampoos/conditioners from home to minimize that dry feeling.

Realize I went off on several tangents there, but do feel free to mefimail me with any additional questions - I'd be glad to answer. Good luck.
posted by xiaolongbao at 2:49 PM on October 23, 2008

Response by poster: Since the original post even more of the products of China's industrial food production have been implicated. DD has bought some countertop cooking appliances and is planning to try to stick to nonprocessed, street level and locally sourced food as much as possible. Thanks everyone for great information.
posted by nax at 5:38 AM on November 7, 2008

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