Buffets and Bacteria – A cautionary tale

My husband and I returned home from Israel a few days ago, having survived a bout of food poisoning (him) and some serious jet lag (both of us). It had been several years since we had last undertaken such an ambitious voyage, and our trip was a sharp reminder of the need to be vigilant about food safety while away from home.

Shakshuka on offer at the Leonardo Plaza Hotel, Eilat

As I mentioned in my October 5th post, generous buffet breakfasts are the norm in Israeli hotels. In addition to eggs cooked to order, guests can help themselves to a variety of salads, cheeses, hot dishes, smoked fish and breakfast pastries, in addition to a dish known as ‘shakshuka’.

According to Wikipedia, shakshuka consists of eggs poached in a tomato-based sauce that may also contain a variety of other ingredients, including peppers, onion, cheese, and various cooked vegetables. Although it can be made with meat, the concoction we were offered was meatless.

The buffet at the Leonardo Plaza Hotel in Eilat was typical of Israeli breakfast offerings we had experienced during our previous visit to Israel in 1995.

The salad bar was located adjacent to the dining room entrance. The food was entirely exposed; susceptible to contamination from any airborne bacteria or viruses propelled by a sneeze or cough.

Fresh salad bar

Some of the cold prepared dishes were better protected, in refrigerated displays

Temperature reading 6.9ºC
Temperature reading 0ºC

These cheesecakes were displayed in what was nominally a refrigerated case, yet the temperature display was dark. Defective display or no refrigeration? Also, note the individual servings of custard – a perishable food – resting unprotected and unrefrigerated on the counter next to the “refrigerated” cheesecakes.

Temperature display not functioning

The hot items were under better temperature control, as the various casserole pans rested on hot plates. These dishes were shielded, and also were warmed by heat lamps from above.

Some of the items, including the shakshuka, were heated only from below, and were exposed to the open air.

Alas, after my husband’s nasty food poisoning episode on the first morning of our trip, this ‘sumptuous’ buffet was wasted on us. We were both especially cautious for the rest of the trip, limiting our breakfasts to fresh-cooked omelets, bread, breakfast pastries, and halvah.

Whether in Israel, Myanmar, Europe or the USA, whether in a hotel, in a restaurant, or on a cruise ship, it pays to eat defensively. Don’t let your salivary glands rule your selections. Choose your food wisely to stay healthy.

Israel – Food Safety Travel Alert

Anyone who has stayed in one of the high-end Israeli hotels will know instantly what is  meant by an “Israeli breakfast.” At it’s best, it is opulent and can fuel an entire day’s tourist activities. Even modest Israeli hotel breakfasts put to shame the ‘complimentary’ breakfasts offered by hotel chains in the USA and Canada.

When my husband and I applied to renew our US passports several weeks ago, we decided that our first trip with the new documents would be to Israel. As soon as the passports arrived in the mail, we solidified our plans.

Our only previous visit to Israel was twenty-three years ago, and I could still recall the sight, smell and taste of those Israeli hotel breakfasts, complete with several choices of egg dishes, a variety of salads, sweet melons and juicy oranges, freshly baked breads and rolls, and decadent breakfast pastries.

We landed at Ben Gurion Airport on the evening of October 3rd, and took a taxi directly to the Orchid Okeanos Boutique Hotel, situated right by the beach in Hertzliya. Following an abbreviated night of sleep, we arose, eager to begin the day with one of those amazing breakfasts.

The offerings at the Orchid were neither opulent nor decadent by Israeli hotel standards. Nevertheless, we partook of freshly squeezed orange juice, freshly baked rolls and croissants, smoked salmon, halvah, and fresh melon. I drank cappuccino and my husband, who is not partial to coffee, opted for soy milk.

We decided to work off some of the calorie intake by walking to the car rental agency offices, some twenty minutes away. An hour or so after breakfast, while we were waiting our turn at the car rental desk, my husband became violently ill. Volunteer first responders from the Magen David Edom arrived at the scene with incredible speed, followed a few minutes later by an ambulance.

We spent the rest of the morning at the ER of the closest hospital. Fortunately, the doctors could find nothing organically wrong, and my husband recovered quickly. As we rode our taxi back to the hotel, I began to suspect he had been the victim of Bacillus cereus food poisoning.

Bacillus cereus (B. cereus for short) is a multi-talented, spore-forming microbe. One of its talents is the production of an enterotoxin – a heat-stable protein that can trigger vomiting in as little as thirty minutes after ingestion.

For the microbe to multiply in a food sample and produce its toxin, the food must be held at room temperature for several hours. But the soy milk – the most likely culprit – was kept in a small refrigerator in the breakfast room. Might the refrigerator have been defective?

We had our answer the next morning when I reached into the refrigerator and discovered it to be at room temperature. The LED status display on the front of the unit was flashing “OFF” in bright red letters.

With Israel’s reputation as a world leader in so many areas of medicine, science, and technology, it is easy to forget that this is still a third-world country in other respects. I have since learned from a reliable source that Israel is not equipped to test food for bacterial toxins. Test kits for these toxins are readily available and are relatively easy to use. This is not rocket science.

We allowed ourselves to forget that we were in the Middle East. I let down the food-safety guard I always have maintained during our travels to places such as Myanmar, Thailand and Bora Bora. And my husband suffered the consequences.

Don’t make the same mistake we did. Follow these safety rules whenever you travel, especially to third world countries.

1. Do not drink the water or use ice in your drinks;

2. Never eat food purchased from street vendors;

3. Avoid raw salads;

4. Be very cautious about the food you select from a buffet; and

5. Be watchful of holding temperatures for perishable foods.

By following these rules, you will miss some interesting taste experiences, but you will be more likely to remain healthy to enjoy the rest of your trip.