Food SafeTEA Perceptions
by: Aaron Beczkiewicz
Having spent a good portion of my master’s program interviewing individuals about their foodborne illnesses following international travel, it goes without saying that I tend to be a little paranoid about what I eat when I travel. As a result, I was fairly strict about self-imposed diet restrictions (i.e., no fresh produce, pre-packaged beverages only, no iced drinks, etc.) over the course of a 2-week trip to Ethiopia last summer. During my return trip, the first several items on my to-do list involved satisfying habits I had gone without the entire trip. Since I LOVE cold beverages and typically go through 2 trays of ice a day, I made a point of getting a drink with ice during one of my layovers (…unfortunately, no direct flights from Columbus to Addis Ababa). As I was enjoying an iced tea at the London Heathrow Airport, I started pondering whether I would consider it a potential food safety risk. With several hours till the next leg of my trip, I decided to occupy myself by digging deeper and a quick internet search at the airport bar returned a couple outbreaks due to tea or other herbal supplements:
Despite spending several days during the trip to Ethiopia assisting with a course on risk ranking and discussing how individuals perceive risk differently, it really had not occurred to me until I was sitting in an airport drinking iced tea how impactful a setting could be on my own perception of risk. Was I justified in relaxing my food and beverage restrictions the minute I passed through customs and immigration in London despite avoiding ice those 2 weeks in Ethiopia?
Given the strong public health and food safety systems in western Europe, I’m fairly confident that I was less likely to get sick from items I consumed during my layover. But the more I thought about it, there were multiple factors I was considering. Whereas my biggest concern with the iced tea at the airport was norovirus due to food handler contamination of ice or garnishes, my avoidance of ice in Ethiopia was driven primarily by my concerns about Salmonella and Cholera which last longer and are more severe than norovirus. Thus, it wasn’t just the likelihood of illness that I was concerned about, but also how severely it could impact my daily life.
Evaluating these two components of risk can be challenging if you don’t have the information (e.g., contamination history, severity of illness, etc.) necessary to base decisions off of. Luckily, food safety systems are increasingly adopting practices, such as posting letter or color grades for retail food establishments following inspection, that promote increased consumer awareness. While my airport musings haven’t led me to give up iced tea, they did increase my awareness of how I approach food and beverages in the U.S. and I now make sure to look for a green health department sign in the window any time I go to a coffee shop in Columbus.
Graduate Research Associate
CFAES Department of Food Science and Technology