When US President Barack Obama sits down to a banquet during his January visit to New Delhi, the food on his plate will outwardly look identical to those of the other guests. In reality, it will be an exact copy prepared by a White House steward (chef).
This is standard security practice for US presidents. Ex-secret service bodyguard Joseph Petro recounts in his 2005 memoir how menus for formal dinners would be sent days before to the White House, the ingredients procured, and a carbon copy dish made by stewards just before the meal was served.
But presidents do wander around. Obama enjoys taking his family around Washington for meals -- and has a taste for foreign and exotic cuisines.
In these cases, a special detachment of Secret Service men appear at the restaurant hours before the presidential party arrives, vets the staff, inspects -- if not tastes -- the ingredients, and then keeps a close watch on the cooking process.
Condiments like ketchup and mustard, and of course water, are brought from the White House.
In the tense period after 9/11, Secret Service men were known to wash spotty glasses and dishes -- presumably with biochemical toxin concerns in mind. When Obama came to India in 2010, a team of doctors from JJ Hospital, Mumbai, helped the Secret Service in their food-testing tasks.
Things get especially hairy during huge events like a US inauguration, when a president and his first lady can flit back and forth between a dozen balls and dinners. Inspection teams from the US Federal Drug Administration work with the Secret Service to keep the meals for even the guests secured. In the 2009 swearing-in, over 100,000 meals were supervised.
Petro explained the philosophy, “Nothing edible gets near the president unless we know where it comes from and who has handled it.” Sometimes that can lead to embarrassing moments. In March last year, Obama had to stick to bottled water during a lunch hosted by Republican Congressmen because someone had failed to screen the lobster salad. The lunch, part of a set of talks on a budget compromise, was also a legislative failure.