ITB 2024 Special Reporting
Food Safety and Tourism.
By Peter Tarlow, Ph.D.
Thursday, 23rd October 2008
The recent food scares, such as the recent outbreak of contaminated milk in China, once again serve to underline the important interconnection between tourism and food safety.

While tourism experts are not expected to be specialists in food safety they do need to be aware that food safety issues are more than merely making sure that the mayonnaise is refrigerated. The US Congressional Research Service for the Library of Congress published a major paper on Agro-terrorism.

The CRS defined 'agro-terrorism' as a subset of bio-terrorism in which diseases are introduced into the food supply for the expressed purpose of creating mass fear, physical harm or death and/or economic loss. In today's global economy tourism entities import foods from around the world, which means that an agro-terrorism attack on one continent can destroy a tourism industry on another continent.

In fact, food safety and tourism security have been linked for many decades. Even superficial study of the food industry reveals that it vulnerable on almost all levels. From processing until delivery to the table, food for human and animal consumption goes through a number of hands, machines and processes.

Tracing where food may have been contaminated is difficult and when we must distinguish between accidental food contamination and terrorist contamination geared toward a political purpose the task becomes monumental. Restaurants are vulnerable for still another reason: they are icons of their society or of another society. For example, it is almost impossible to separate a pizzeria from Italian culture or a croissant from French culture.

Restaurants and other eating establishments can be targeted for a number of reasons here are just a few:

  • Most restaurant owners do not know their patrons, thus as public places, restaurants provide easy access and exits
  • Most restaurants in tourism areas have no idea where their clients are after they have left their premises. This lack of information means that it is difficult to track down what food poisoning
  • Restaurants rarely keep records as to where participants live or how many came in a party
  • Restaurants sell good times and therefore vigilance is low
  • Most restaurants can easily be penetrated. Often back/side doors are left open and waiters and waitresses, working for tips, may not challenge a customer out of fear of losing income.
  • Tourism depends on a safe and reliable food supply. Tourists and visitors cannot often go to local markets to buy food supplies and usually need to depend on restaurants or other public places to purchase food.
To help you avoid crisis here are some food safety concerns about which we all need to be aware:

Make sure you have an idea as to which food can produce which illnesses. No one expects every person in travel and tourism to become an expert in all of the various food illnesses, but it is helpful to have a general idea of food safety

Take the time to know what are the major food problems and potential crises for your area. Each part of the world has special food safety needs and challenges. Often food safety issues are dependent on the type of food served, and where the food is obtained. Does your hotel, attraction or restaurant used local produces or does it import these fruits and vegetables from some place else? What type of water supply is used in food irrigation? How good are the refrigerator containers that bring meats and fish to your locale?

Make sure that you know who is working in your kitchen and what is their state of heath. The safety of your food is directly dependent on the health (both mental and physical) of those preparing the food that is served. It only takes one sick chef or food preparer to sicken many of your customers. Additionally in an age of terrorism, food preparation areas invite terrorists to accomplish their primary goal of economic destruction without being noticed. Make sure that you have a full record of who is preparing food, what these people's backgrounds are and a constant update on the state of their health.

Who are your waiters? In a like manner, waiters and waitresses are a key link in the tourism food chain. Too many people in the tourism industry choose to ignore the safety and security issues surround these people. Because often these people's principal source of income comes from tips and they often have no sick days, health insurance or other social protections, they will come to work even when sick. This means that the public is placed at risk due to contaminated people handling their food. For example, it is essential that food handlers be they on the preparation side or on the service side wash their hands often and maintain the highest levels of hygiene possible.

Sensitize staff to food allergies. Not only can food be contaminated either through illnesses or via a malevolent act, but there is a growing number of people who suffer from food allergies or have special dietary needs. Unfortunately all too many staff people either do not care or are ignorant of the fact that a mistake can be fatal. While no staff person can be expected to know every possible food allergy, it is essential that they be trained in not assuming or guessing. In case a customer indicates that he/she is allergic to a specific condiment or food substance, it is imperative that restaurants, hotels and other food providers know how to obtain precise and accurate information.

Make sure that trash is deposited in a way that does not harm the environment. Food safety is not only about the quality of what is served and how it is served, but also about the disposal methods for non-used foods. Too often food is left outside in plastic bags that produce foul smells and are easily broken into by animals. Poor disposal techniques not only produce also become environmental hazards, eye sores for communities and may turn into health hazards.

Do you know who your caterer is? Many tourism events are catered affairs. Often however people in the tourism industry have no idea who works for their caterers, whom they employ or what their backgrounds are. Caterers should come under the same scrutiny as hotels and restaurants.

In today's competitive world of travel, food plays an ever increasingly important role. People not only seek new food experiences but continue to demand greater levels of food safety. While safe food cannot assure a destination's success, food illnesses can help to determine its failure.

Dr. Peter E. Tarlow is an expert specializing in the impact of crime and terrorism on the tourism industry, event risk management, and in tourism and economic development. Tarlow earned his Ph.D. in sociology from Texas A&M University. He also holds degrees in history, in Spanish and Hebrew literatures, and in psychotherapy. Since 1990, Tarlow has been teaching courses on tourism, crime & terrorism to police forces and security and tourism professionals throughout the world. www.tourismandmore.com

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