They let me back in the country this past Thursday night in Houston. My return is from two weeks of not thinking about food safety while visiting Chile and Argentina.

It’s not easy to put aside Job 1. Nor was my attempt at it entirely successful.

The re-entry line for citizens at the border has much improved over the past few years. I especially like those passport scanners that allow you to answer those arcane questions mostly about agricultural products that at one time you had to fill out with a pencil and paper on your incoming flight.

Now after the passport scanners, you still have to present yourself to a live border agent before stepping back into the USA. After crossing international borders something like four times in two weeks, I knew enough to keep my answers short and sweet.

“Why were you in Argentina?” he asked.

“Tourism,” I said.

“Anything else?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“What is your occupation?” he continued.

“I am a writer, editor,” I replied.

“What do you write about?” he followed.

“Food safety,” I said, not thinking.

“What kind of food and agricultural products did you bring back with you?” he then asked.”

“None,” I said. “It does not work that way!”

I then found myself explaining how writing about recalls or outbreaks does not involve my taking possession of any of the involved products. After more of this, the agent did permit my re-entry to the United States after telling me he was “just interested.”

Being gone for two weeks specifically to not think about food safety does not mean I did not notice things. Both Santiago and Buenos Aires are known for their food and meat markets. I visited the public markets in both cities with professional guides.

My guide in Buenos Aires wanted to know if the Argentina meat market was doing anything that would not be allowed in the United States. He had googled me before I got there, so he knew what might interest me. At first, I did not think so.

Then I noticed the meat cutters had paused their work while remaining at their stations to drink from something I did not recognize. In the states consuming food or drinks while processing raw food or meat is verboten.

But the meat cutters and others this morning were doing what they always do — taking mate tea from traditional gourd cups. Mate is a herbal tea famous throughout Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Mate is another word for the gourd, and the tea is drunk through a metal straw called a bombilla.

Mate tea breaks at the workstation might not be best for food safety, but the tradition likely helps with production. The high caffeine content is good for that back-to-work buzz.

Argentines drink 5 kg of mate per person, per year. Mate’s reputation is also one of a health drink for antioxidants and cholesterol-lowering properties and inclusion of vitamins C, B1, and B2 as active compounds. They say the Argentine cowboys, known as gauchos, were known for living on nothing more than meat and mate.

The gourd cups are sold just about everywhere you look in Argentina. And the mate tea makes Argentina the world’s ninth largest tea producer. It exports about 50 million kilograms of tea to the U.S., U.K. and Europe.

There are rituals for sharing mate, but that did not appear to be occurring at the market on the morning we visited  Not a big deal perhaps, but another example of how food safety occurs inside traditions and cultures, not apart from them.

Except for those two instances, however, I really did not think about food safety for two whole weeks.

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