Food safety vs food security

My month-long break in Paraguay is coming to an end. It has been a hectic month – packed with family visits, celebrations, and of course, lots of [un-safe] food.

With concepts like “cross contamination”,  “meat temperature”, and “hand washing” floating around my head I’ve been able to look at things differently.  I concluded that we are decades behind the U.S. in terms of food safety. 

While Americans worry much about food safety, Paraguayans are more occupied with food security. Access to food is more important than stopping to think whether it’s safe or not. I even have a hard time explaining what food safety is. I am not surprised; I had no idea when I started working for Doug. Food safety topics are not in the news much and I have not heard people discussing about it.

To find out more, I’ve sat around the kitchen a lot. I tried a few times to explain to the cook why she should wash her hands every time she touches raw meat and goes on to something else. All I got back were looks of ‘you are just crazy’. Her food is still delicious.

I asked her how often her kids have diarrhea. She said, not often, maybe once or twice a month. I asked her if she’s worried about it, she answered she’s not, it’s a normal part of being a kid. 

Or maybe our stomachs are used to handling salmonella and E. coli better than others. It’s hard to know. When I moved to Kansas two years ago I survived on rice and toast for a week because I couldn’t stop barfing.

But sitting back and recalling some of my experiences on this side of the world, I am surprised I have not yet barfed once (not counting the New Years party, when I had too much champagne).

A couple of weeks ago I went to eat one of my favorite meals – steak sandwich – better known as lomito. The best place I know is just a few blocks away – a humble-looking lomito stand. I took a bite out of my lomito and realized the meat was still pink on the inside. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted the mayonnaise tub by the grill.

I wondered how long the mayo (probably home-made, with raw egg) had been sitting out in the heat. I wondered where he kept the raw meat or how he knew if it was done or not. Should I ask? I resolved that some things are better left unknown. I finished munching and handed him the money. He grabbed the bills with bare hands, put them in a box, and continued flipping steaks. (Note: the pic to the right is actually another lomito I ate during a short visit to Brazil, but that’s pretty much how it looked like)

We do have nice restaurants where things like these don’t happen or at least we don’t see them happening. But in a broader picture, citizens and leaders of the country have plenty to figure out before they can tackle food safety concerns.

In the meantime, I will keep savoring the lomitos, chipa guazu, sopa paraguaya, asados, and such. For me, it is still awesome [un-safe] food.