Food poisoning in China: From the hot pot to the toilet pan – an expat food hygiene nightmare.

It’s no secret that food hygiene is a problem for anyone travelling anywhere. So if you’re an expat who has committed to a prolonged stay in a strange and foreign land, it’s almost impossible to avoid this issue unless you’re completely unadventurous in your eating habits.

In western countries there is often a certain squeamishness about food. Shoppers stay away from anything which reminds them too much of the brutal nature of meat – things like heads, tails, feet and innards tend not to be put on general sale at the supermarket. Save for the odd specialist outlet, chicken feet for example are something you are very unlikely to see at your local supermarket in the average western city. But in Asia, there is something of a nose-to-tail eating tradition in many countries where no part of the animal goes wasted. Therefore, it’s common to see parts of an animal which may make a westerner feel uncomfortable. In many cases the animal itself may be displayed hanging skinned in the open for curing purposes, in front of diners. Whilst this may be for reasons of a lack of space in the restaurant, it is also done to assure local frequenters of the establishment that the meat is fresh. Indeed, in some cases, the animal may be still alive and slaughtered in front of those about to eat it. This is common with fish, where diners select the specimen which looks most appealing, before it appears a little later, prepared to be eaten.

But with this different attitude to animal slaughter brings hygiene concerns into the mind for some. And when the familiarity with uncooked parts of the animal comes into play, different eating styles become plausible – one such example is hotpot, a dish where diners throw prepared cuts of meat and vegetables into a large pot of heated oil to cook for themselves.

Chongqing expat Pedro, a 40-year-old American who has been in China for five years, had his first encounter with his adopted home city’s famous hotpot dish in his first month in China. He considered himself the adventurous type but the different style of eating ended up throwing him off balance in more ways than one.

“When I was at college in Seattle we had a lot of Asian classmates and I got interested in China that way, but it wasn’t until later in life my company sent me over here.When I finally made it to China I dived head first into everything, particularly the food,” he said.

One evening Pedro was out with his new co-workers who took him to a what he described as a very “local” restaurant where “you could see the carcasses of hogs hanging up in the kitchen and the chefs just carving cuts of meat straight off the bone.”

Undeterred, and afraid to offend his hosts, Pedro joined in the action wholeheartedly, raising his glass to cheer his new friends as he put the slices of fatty pork into the spicy oil. Chongqing hotpot is famous for its very spicy flavour, in line with the southwest region of China’s love of peppercorns and all manner of zest-inducing aromas.

The pork tasted very good, and Pedro, originally of Mexican extraction, had no problem with the spicy food. In fact he had specifically asked to go somewhere with “good flavoursome food” when he got the word from his company that they needed a man in China. So moving to the spice capital of China was the perfect start to the adventure.

“Much as I liked spicy food, the sight of the meat being cut straight from the dead hog was an image I just couldn’t quite shake. It played on my mind, but the meat tasted so good, and, I guess I was hungry that night, so I really ‘filled my boots’.”

A good night was had by all, and Pedro, having been egged on by his Chinese colleagues to eat as many spicy vegetables and as much meat as possible, scored big points by polishing off everything with ease. A final toast was made to Pedro in honour of the “American spice king” as his new nickname went, and he was the hero of the hour.

The group left the restaurant and disappeared into the night. Pedro lived just a few blocks away so made his way home on foot. It was a less than ten minute journey, so nothing could go wrong. Or so he thought.

“I was about half way between my apartment and the restaurant when I felt my gut starting to churn, and I had an ominous feeling that I was going to have to use the bathroom real soon,” Pedro said, “At first I thought I would make it home in good time, but about a minute later, things just felt so bad I felt I now had an emergency situation on my hands.”

Since he’d only just been in China for a short time, Pedro began to panic. There weren’t any public toilets around and he felt too embarrassed and shy to walk into a restaurant or shop just to use their facilities.
“In the end I had to do what I had to do behind some bushes in a small park just yards from my apartment – luckily it was dark, but I just couldn’t make it home in time,” he said.

But once he got back, his problems had only just began. Pedro vomited during the night several times and by morning, he felt very unwell and called in sick to work. A coworker came to help him find his way there, and he spent a night at a hospital after being treated for a bad case of food poisoning.

“Unfortunately because I had only just got there, there was some confusion as to whether I was on the company’s group policy already or not, but we had a great broker who stepped in and sorted everything out,” Pedro said, “After a couple of days and a few lost pounds I was back at work and everything was fine. But next time I’ll leave that meat in the hot pot a bit longer.”

The above story is just one of the many experiences we have learned of in Asia. So don’t get caught short – make sure your health insurance policy covers you properly and everything is in order.