In my life, I’ve put a lot of disgusting things in my mouth. From putrid shark to blood yogurt, I’ll try anything once. Odds are if you’ve traveled, you’ve choked down some questionable meals that don’t always coincide with the developed world’s strict sense of hygiene. In the West, food safety seems to be a top concern, as if we are just one dirty fork away from an epidemic. But have we become so germaphobic to have lost all understanding of what constitutes a legitimate health concern?
Chances are if you ever ate at a restaurant in Salvador da Bahia, your food came from the Feira de São Joaquim. It’s not the cleanest of places. The São Joaquim market is one of Brazil’s biggest, and it’s disgusting. Meat, covered in flies, is left to rot in the afternoon heat. Animals are stacked in tiny creates one atop the other as little pools of urine form on the market floor. Unsurprisingly, the vendors here aren’t particularly eager to get in front of the camera.
São Joaquim opened my eyes to the logistics of food. In most of the world, produce and meat come from places like this. Even the products found in modern supermarkets likely made a pit stop at some distribution center not unlike São Joaquim before being processed and packaged. It’s ironic (though not unsurprising) that with all the attention paid to food preparation, there is a lot less concern over how food makes it to our plate. We seldom contemplate that which we do not see.
The Western world has largely become removed from food. One of the few points of contact that we have with this world is the restaurant. But inspectors, regulations, and licenses create an illusion of sterility as if our food is being prepared in a laboratory operated by NASA. The illusion is only broken if we happened to see something that does not fit our collective hygienic view: lipstick on a glass, a cockroach, an employee who forgot to wash his hands. And when that happens we don’t see food but a plate full of bacteria.
Our inability to get past our own paranoia is perhaps best exemplified by street food. Extolled for its supreme tastiness and lambasted for its reputed unsanitary preparation, street food is the culinary choice of millions of people every day. Nevertheless, it has developed something of a reputation in the West for being off-limits to all but the most extreme travelers.
But street food isn’t nearly as unsanitary as it is often portrayed. In fact, it may actually be the safest food that you encounter on the road. Why? It’s prepared right in front of you! With street food, you know what you’re getting, where it’s been sitting, and, most importantly, that it’s cooked. Street food offers transparency that you would never find in a five-star restaurant. Yet, it is precisely that transparency which makes it unacceptable to many.
How do we balance the need for a safe food supply without obsessing over every detail? Singapore, as it turns out, may have the answer. While the government has put in place strict protocols and requires food preparers to take a six-hour course, its regulatory and licensing environment is designed for minimalist intervention. Establishments are inspected annually and given a grade ranging from A to D. The restaurant or street food vendor is then required to publicly display the rating. Instead of onerously punishing the owner, the consumer becomes the arbiter of food safety and is free to choose the establishment that he or she feels most comfortable with. This has created an environment where food safety standards are upheld without direct government oversight.
Ultimately, what all this comes down to is choice. There are some real concerns about food preparation. Hepatitis A, for example, is no joke, and anyone who hasn’t been vaccinated should do this whether they are traveling or not. But our withdrawal from the process of taking food from the farm and putting it on the table has led us to overemphasis only the areas in which we come in contact with the supply chain, namely the supermarket and restaurant. Not only has this fueled unnecessary regulations, but it also leaves us blind to the rest of the process. We have to ask ourselves: who do we want in charge of our food? Should the final choice be left to the consumer or a faceless bureaucracy?