How can I avoid getting an upset stomach or food poisoning in China?
Chinese food is loved the world over, but if you’re a newcomer to China you might find your stomach a little troubled. That’s because food here may be less clean – though no more dangerous – than what you’re used to, and you may have to endure an uncomfortable period of adjustment for a couple of days or even weeks. Don’t worry – it will adjust. And while occasional flare-ups of digestive distress may trouble many foreigners who live in China for long periods, for the most part life in China will be much the same as it was at home with regard to food.
There are, however, other things to bear in mind. Safety issues have cast an unpleasant shadow over Chinese food, and these can account for some instances of stomach trouble. Read on to find out how to minimize the risk of dietary disaster.
And if you do find yourself feeling ill, we also have top tips on how to feel better.
Avoid drinking tap water on the Chinese mainland
While the tap water in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan is officially safe for consumption, you should not drink mainland tap water unless you have a filter on your tap (and you’re sure that the filter is functioning and clean). You should also be aware that much water and ice served in restaurants and bars will be made from unfiltered water. Boiled water will not get rid of any metal contaminants that may have leeched into the water from old pipes or other sources. For more information on tap water and its alternatives in China, see this article.
Avoid cheap restaurants and vendors
As tempting as it might be to eat at the cheap little restaurants down your block, the reality is that their kitchens (and indeed their dining areas) will almost certainly not be up to the standards of hygiene and cleanliness that you would expect in many other countries. This may not cause a problem at all, but the cheaper the restaurant the greater the risk of an upset stomach.
Also, be wary of street-side vendors selling meat such as chuan’r, the shish-kebab-like sticks of lamb that are often seen for sale in warmer months. The origin of this meat is dubious at best, and there have been reports in the past of at least one person in Shanghai being hospitalized due (supposedly) to rat poison in his chuan’r. Of course, the veracity of such reports isn’t clear, but it’s better to be safe than very sorry…
The more expensive restaurants should be safe for all. Note that we mean expensive by Chinese standards; you can still eat out at a good restaurant for a lot less than you would in many countries, and it doesn’t have to be at five-star hotels.
Choose fresh, safe food
If you’re buying ingredients then make the effort to choose food that has a known source, such as an organic farm outside your city, if one is available. Nowadays, in many of the major Chinese cities, there are small companies that offer to bring fresh (sometimes ‘organic’) produce direct to your door, after buying them direct from the farmers. Their prices may even be comparable with – or less than – those of supermarkets. which claim they deliver the most fresh fruits and vegetables to your doors. They buy from farmers or markets, pack them and deliver. Do shop around and ask for recommendations before you buy, though.
Alternatively, look to the better-known brands. This isn’t foolproof, as famous brands in China have been hit hard by food contamination problems – most notably in 2008, when the infamous melamine milk scandal caused a huge loss of confidence among Chinese people in the county’s dairy industry.
However, the fact remains that the better-known brands are more aware of public scrutiny and therefore feel greater pressure to maintain a good reputation. On the other hand unknown brands are not in the limelight quite as much, and so may not feel as compelled to abide by proper regulations.
As with restaurants, it will benefit you to spend a little more money and avoid smaller, potentially less reliable fruit and vegetable stalls in favor of supermarkets or more upmarket food stores, which should have more consistent suppliers and normally do not keep food after their expiration dates (see below). There are no major fruit or vegetable brands operating in China, so for the most part you will need to rely on your own judgment more than in some other countries.
A note on Chinese ‘expiration dates’
Many Chinese foods and food products do not have expiration dates, but instead have the date that the item was produced. Consequently, it is a good idea to check how long items such as eggs and milk are expected to last before shopping, so that you can be sure that what you’re buying is still safe to consume.
Do not buy room-temperature food in restaurants
In China, you can often buy cooked food from restaurant or shops that has been left out under a hot lamp or in open containers of warm water or oil. If you know, or have reason to believe, that the food has been left out for a long time – especially in summer, if it has been left at room temperature for four hours or more – do not eat it.
Wash everything before you eat!
Wash your hands before eating; you may find the outdoor areas of most cities in China to be more dirty than some cities in the West, although obviously it’s best to wash your hands before eating anywhere in the world. Many restaurants will have toilets in which you can wash your hands. Some – including some branches of Western fast food joints like McDonald’s - will have dedicated hand-washing areas.
If you are dining at home, you should also wash all raw vegetables carefully and vigorously before consuming, as they may well have traces of pesticides and other contaminants on them.