Water & Food Safety
Unlike in most Western countries, the tap water in China is undrinkable before it is boiled. In addition to pollution at and near the reservoirs that provide the country’s citizens with water, the underground pipes that deliver water throughout towns are often in terrible shape, allowing groundwater, bacteria and other contaminants to seep into the supply. Many cases of “food poisoning” are actually the result of food being washed or prepared with contaminated water.
It’s very important to avoid drinking tap water during your visit, but you shouldn’t go thirsty either. So what are your options for staying healthy and hydrated?
Boiled and Bottled Water. Hotel rooms often feature an office-style water cooler which delivers both cool and hot purified drinking water. Other hotels offer a water heater that you can use to boil water. In some cases, four- or five-star hotels may supply high-quality mineral water for free or for a minimal charge. If you’re thirsty in a restaurant but don’t want to pay sky-high prices for bottled water, ask for boiled water: kāishuǐ (开水).
Boiling water will prevent you from getting acutely sick, but your glass will still contain high concentrations of heavy metals and other chemicals. Your healthiest bet is bottled water, which is ubiquitous and inexpensive. Several popular brands of bottled water, such as Wahaha (Wáhāhā;娃哈哈), Nestle (Quècháo;雀巢), Ice Dew (Bīnglù;冰露; which is produced by Coca-Cola) and Nongfu Spring (Nóngfū Shānquán;农夫山泉), are available for purchase in many street stands, shops, supermarkets, restaurants and hotel stores for ¥1-2 per bottle. Check to be sure that the bottle was properly sealed before you drink it.
Other Things to Consider. Order your drinks without ice cubes since they could be made with tap water. Luckily, the Chinese prefer to drink warm or hot water even on the hottest summer day, so you’re unlikely to be served ice water anyway.
Using a minimal amount of tap water is generally OK for brushing your teeth. Most of the time, alcoholic drinks and drinks made with boiled water, like coffee or tea, are also safe to drink.
Forget about General Tso’s chicken and fortune cookies – thanks to the amazing diversity of Chinese cuisine, dining can be one of the most thrilling aspects of your time here. As with any international destination, however, you’re probably worried about what is safe and what will make you sick, and how you’ll be able to tell the difference. It doesn’t help that China seems to be in the news every month with a new food safety scandal, from glow-in-the-dark pork and melamine-laced baby formula to exploding watermelons and fake eggs.
China undeniably lags behind much of the West when it comes to food safety regulation and enforcement. Why? China’s massive population means a massive number of companies are involved in producing food, ranging from small mom-and-pop operations to mega farms – making accountability and enforcement tough. And until the State Food and Drug Administration was created in early 2013, oversight was conducted by a haphazard list of different ministries and agencies. In a sense, China finds itself in a similar position to the United States around the turn of the 20th century, when exposés like Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle revealed the horrific standards at meat-production plants.
Despite some high-profile scandals and room for improvement, eating out, especially in Mainland cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, can be completely safe and fun with a little knowledge and preparation. Below, we’ll outline some basic precautions and suggestions to keep an eye-opening culinary experience from becoming a painful one.
Before you leave
There are a few things you can do before you leave home that will pave the way for a safe eating experience in China. It’s not a bad idea to put together a mini-medical kit stocked with Immodium, Pepto Bismol, Tums and other over-the-counter stomach aids. These medicines may be available in Chinese supermarkets and pharmacies, especially those in larger first-tier cities, but could be hard to find in other places and are more expensive. Next, ask your doctor to prescribe an antibiotic such as Ciprofloxacin (Cipro) that is effective against traveler’s diarrhea. In the event that you do eat something you regret, antibiotics can seriously cut down on the duration of your suffering.
Also, consider bringing a supply of hand sanitizer – soap and hand driers are relatively rare in public restrooms, and you’ll be out in the streets encountering all kinds of new germs. Keeping your hands clean will go a long way toward keeping you healthy. For vegetarian travelers or travelers with food allergies, consider learning how to express your special requirements in Mandarin, or print out a small card that states your allergies in both English and Chinese to show to waiters and waitresses. Be aware that it can sometimes be difficult to tell when a dish contains meat or other ingredients you’re trying to avoid, but most restaurants will be reasonably cooperative with special requests.
There are a number of factors to help you judge whether a restaurant is safe to visit. An old rule of thumb says that if a place is busy and packed, especially with locals, you can probably trust it. A bigger restaurant or a chain, likewise, may have more standardized food safety practices. Locations that have been listed in our guidebook and online travelers forums are also probably a safe bet. If you’re an adventurous eater, feel free to venture off the beaten path to explore lesser-known spots, but keep your eyes open for obvious red flags like a filthy dining room or food that has been sitting out at room temperature.
While language and culture differences can make it tricky to judge for yourself whether a restaurant seems clean, places like Beijing have made it easier for you by establishing a universal grading system for restaurants. You’ll notice the signs hanging in many restaurant windows reading A, B or C with a corresponding smiley (or less-smiley) face. An A rating denotes “good” health and sanitary conditions, B stands for “standard” and C means “basic.” As of June 2013, ratings for all restaurants in Beijing, big or small, will be available online at www.bjhi.gov.cn (in Chinese), the official website of the Beijing Health Inspection Institute. Other first-tier citied throughout China have a similar grading system, but this has yet to be implemented in rural areas.
Once you’ve chosen a restaurant, there are things you can do to minimize your risk of food poisoning. If a dish arrives at your table and it seems undercooked, rotten, or just slightly “off,” trust your gut. Ask for a replacement or don’t eat it. Sometimes just trusting your instincts is the best way to go, whether it be at a five-star hotel or at a street grill; food poisoning has no preferences.
Eating is one of the greatest pleasures of traveling in China, and there’s an amazing variety of snacks available on the street, with each city and/or village specializing in its own unique dishes. Street food can be fresh and sanitary, especially when the cooks prepare it quickly while you wait. Stand back and watch the vendor make the food for a few minutes if you want to get an idea of how it’s handled. On many food streets you’ll see lines of folks lining up for snacks – this is usually a sign that the stall has a good reputation.
Most of the time, however, street food doesn’t have the best track record for cleanliness. You may want to avoid meat snacks in the heat of summer and snacks that include anything raw. For those peculiarly picky about food, you may want to stay clear of street food altogether, but those who are more adventurous and want to get the true local taste should by all means dig in and enjoy some of the tastiest snacks the country has to offer. Chances are you’ll be fine, but just remember that you have been warned.
Markets & shops
If you’re hoping to do some self-catering during your trip, keep in mind that not all markets and shops are created equal. You’ll see small fruit and vegetable carts and mini-markets stands popping up anywhere and everywhere. Some of these will be more organized outdoor set-ups, while others may simply be a man standing next to a pile of vegetables on the sidewalk. Most likely, the pineapple or peppers you buy from a roadside stand will be just fine, and interacting with hawkers and vendors is definitely part of the China experience, but if you’re really concerned about food safety, the rule “bigger is better” applies when buying food on your own. Basically, this means you can be more certain of quality by getting groceries from a big well-known (usually foreign-based) chain like Tesco (UK), Carrefour (France) or Walmart (US), since these stores have better-developed supply chains and food safety practices.