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‘Can I Eat This?’ app from CDC helps travelers avoid stomach bugs

REUTERS/Sheng Li
Zheng Jianan frying noodles for his customers at his stall in Shenyang, Liaoning province of China.

If you’re planning a trip overseas, particularly to a developing country, you may want to download the new, interactive “Can I Eat This?” smartphone app recently made available (for free) by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

After you’ve selected the country you’re visiting, the app will ask you a few simple questions about what you’re considering eating or drinking, where you bought it, and what kind of packaging (if any) it’s in. It will then tell you if the food or drink is probably OK to drink, probably not OK, or something in between (in which case, according to the app, you’ll be ingesting it at your own risk).

For example, let’s say you’re in Uruguay and you’re thinking about drinking a “kinda” hot cup of coffee in a café.  (Yes, “kinda” hot is one of the options you can choose.)

“Drink at your own risk,” says the app. “Heating water to boiling kills bacteria in it. Water that has been boiled then cooled is safe, but be careful of coffee or tea that may never have been heated to a high enough temperature. Also be careful about adding milk that might be contaminated or unpasteurized.

Or let’s say you’re in China, and you’re wondering if you should buy a meal from a street vendor. Probably not, according to the CDC app: “Street vendors in developing countries are not well regulated, and the food may be contaminated. That skewer of mystery meat may look tempting, but we’d hate for you to spend the rest of your vacation in the bathroom.”

As that answer suggests, the app has a sense of humor — well, “kinda.” For example, under the drinks section for the United Kingdom, the app says this: “Except for unpasteurized milk, most beverages in industrialized countries are safe to drink. You can even drink tap water, if you are into that sort of thing.”

A dose of confidence

“Can I Eat This?” is a helpful tool, even if its answers seem a bit redundant after a while. What’s particularly useful is that once you’ve downloaded the app, you don’t need an online connection to access its information.

And with it, says the CDC, “you can be more confident that your food and drink choices won’t make you spend your international trip in the bathroom.”

Confidence on that issue is something all travelers could use. For each year, as the CDC also points out, between 20 percent and 50 percent of Americans develop diarrhea while abroad, making it the most common travel-related illness.  

To download the new CDC app, simply search in your app store for “Can I Eat This?”

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 07/04/2014 - 01:44 pm.

    I take some of my cues from the local people

    In China, Cuba, and Korea, local people do not drink unboiled tap water. If they avoid the tap water, I’m not going to drink it.

    In China, people told us, “When I go to the street markets, I bring my own bowl and chopsticks, because the vendors don’t always wash dishes carefully.” Not having my own set of dishes on the trip, I avoided the street markets.

    If the local people tell you to avoid something, it’s best to avoid it, although it’s not always true that you can eat everything that the local people’s immune systems are adjusted to.

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