Are Thai Street Food Stalls Really Dangerous?

This week we have the tragic news of a young New Zealand tourist, Sarah Carter, who died while on holiday in Thailand. Reports are not clear yet, but it seems that 23 year old Sarah died from food poisoning after eating at a market stall in the Northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai. Two of her friends, Emma Langlands and Amanda Eliason, also suffered from food poisoning though Emma seems to be recovering now. Initial headlines that went around the world stated “NZ woman dies after Thai food poisoning”. The article in the online newsite went on to say: “Sarah Katherine Carter, 23, died at Chiang Mai Ram Hospital, in northern Thailand, on Sunday morning after eating toxic seaweed she bought from a food market on Friday.”

A lot of what has been printed in the newspapers has been pure speculation and more questions are raised than answered. The truth is, doctors are not sure yet if seafood is to blame. We don’t know what they ate or even where they ate. Though the Bangkok Post this morning (“Chiang Mai fears food poisoning scare”) said officials were sent to collect food samples from “the Night Bazaar food market”. According to Chiang Mai public health chief Wattana Kanchanakamol, the preliminary report into the death of Sarah indicated a viral infection. What is strange at the moment is that Emma, who also suffered from vomiting though not as serious, ordered a different meal to her two friends. In addition, in a newspaper interview (“Doctors not sure if Thai seafood to blame”), Amanda told reporters that they didn’t start vomiting until the next morning.  Lab results are not in yet and we probably won’t know what caused the tragic death for a few days yet.

In the meantime, we don’t need scaremongering headlines like this one in The Timary Herald: “Guesthouse owner says avoid Thai food stalls”. Like many people, I have lived in Thailand for many years and I haven’t had anything worse than diarrhoea that went away by the next morning. Of course, food poisoning is a real threat but if you take basic precautions then your chances of being hit are greatly lowered. The advice in this newspaper story is given by a foreigner who suffered from “crippling food poisoning” after eating RAW oysters on TWO different occasions. According to this man, you should avoid roadside or market food stalls. Do I really need to comment any further on this?

Thai people are just as concerned about food hygiene as people like you and me. I’ve always said that if you see a food stall that is crowded with local people then the chances are much higher that the food is safe to eat. No-one is going to return to a stall if the food gives them diarrhoea. I would also suggest to only eat at stalls where you can watch them cook your food. Don’t eat ready-cooked food that has been sitting in pots all day. It should also be obvious that you shouldn’t eat any kind of raw seafood on the street. That is just crazy. As for ice, you should only eat ice cubes and not crushed ice. One final advice, don’t make the mistake of thinking a fancy restaurant is cleaner than a roadside food stall. The only time that I have had diarrhoea or anything that resembled food poisoning was after eating at a restaurant.

It is always sad to see someone die so young. My thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of  Sarah Carter. I also hope that both Emma Langlands and Amanda Eliason will make a full recovery and are able to fly back home to their family and friends soon.

Related blog: Thai Street Food Challenge

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