Dominican Republic food safety woes

In 2004 I visited the Dominican Republic, a popular Caribbean destination for Canadians attempting to escape the winter cold, wet and grey.  Dani and I took advantage of her spring break and Millennium Scholarship (probably not what they were meant for) and spent a week sitting on the beach, eating buffets and playing scrabble. It was pretty fun. My food paranoia was focused on ice cubes, foods held at the wrong temperature and fresh fruits and vegetables. I don’t think I ate anything that wasn’t fried and stuck to beer all week. Dani wasn’t nearly as ridiculous as I was (she rarely is) and she tried lots of stuff.

The week was a success; not only did we get some Vitamin D, neither of us had any foodborne illness symptoms.

Not so lucky for many other visitors to that same Dominican resort over the next few years, foodborne illness outbreaks were reported in 2005 and a reported 2000 guests became ill with norovirus in August 2007. The 2007 outbreak resulted in a class-action lawsuit in the UK against the travel agency. Claimants say that the travel agency knew there were repeated food safety-related violations linked to the resort and they kept sending travelers for weeks of vacation dominated by bathroom trips.

According to the lawsuit:

Raw and cooked meats were kept close together at the hotel, food was not covered, the restaurant allowed in dogs, birds, mice and insects, the buffet area was covered in flies with birds picking at leftover food, and they saw mice on tables.

I didn’t see any mice, but none of this is really surprising.

The Dominican Republic relies heavily on the tourist-generated economy and today’s news about another huge outbreak is likely not what government officials are looking for:

More than 1,200 athletes participating in a sports festival in the Dominican Republic got sick from food poisoning, with 22 ending up hospitalized.  The athletes affected were among more than 6,200 young people between the ages of 9 and 18 competing in the 12th Don Bosco Salesian National Games in Santo Domingo.

The food served to the athletes on Friday “was not transported on time and, by the time they served it, seven hours had gone by since they cooked it and packed it in disposable plates,” Don Bosco Salesian National Games director Tomas Polanco said.

Whether the Dominican Republic’s food safety system is really all that much worse than what is seen in North America is debatable — but having multiple large outbreaks in a country that depends on reputation and perception of safety isn’t a good thing.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.