Food poisoning is a horrible, even potentially life-threatening experience. The CDC estimates that about 76 million people in the United States get sick each year from tainted food, with about 128,000 hospitalized and 5,000 deaths. With the recent Listeria-tainted canteloupe becoming the deadliest food poisoning outbreak in more than a decade, it is important to understand the most frequent causes of food poisoning and what you can do the limit your risks.
Harmful bacteria are the most common causes of food poisoning illnesses, with symptoms ranging from an upset stomach to fever and severe vomiting. Beef and poultry are the most frequent sources of food-borne illness, but a number of other foods also pose a risk. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group that tracks food safety issues has compiled a list of the top 10 foods responsible for a large number of outbreaks since 1990.
The list includes foods overseen by the Food and Drug Administration which includes produce, seafood, egg, and dairy products, but does not include meat and poultry which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
- Leafy greens (363 outbreaks; 13,568 reported cases since 1990) Greens such as cabbage, spinach and kale are responsible for 24 percent of the non-meat outbreaks listed. Salads and other greens become contaminated by contact with animals, contaminated water, poor handling practices and even contaminated washing equipment.
- Eggs (352 outbreaks and 11,163 reported cases since 1990) most often due to Salmonella bacteria. Nearly half of all cases of egg-related illness occur in restaurants. The bacteria can lurk inside the egg, so proper cooking is key (which kills the germs). You should avoid eating any products containing raw eggs, such as cookie dough.
- Tuna (268 outbreaks and 2,341 reported cases since 1990) This type of fish can be contaminated by scombrotoxin, which causes flushing, headaches, and cramps. If it is stored above 60 degrees after being caught, fresh fish can release the toxin, which cannot be destroyed by cooking (and is unrelated to mercury contamination or other problems related to tuna and other fish).
- Oysters (132 outbreaks and 3,409 reported cases since 1990) Even though oysters comprise only a small amount of the American diet, they rank highly on the food-contamination list. Norovirus, which can live in waters where oysters are harvested, is common in oysters, as is Vibrio, a bacterium that’s in the cholera family. Eating food infected with Vibrio causes diarrhea, abdominal cramping, nausea and headache. For those with a weakened immune system, certain varieties of Vibrio can infect the bloodstream and be life-threatening.
- Potatoes (109 outbreaks and 3,659 reported cases since 1990) In the case of potatoes, it isn’t usually the potato itself that is typically the issue. It is the cross contamination during food preparation which is most likely the problem since potatoes are a component of many recipes rather than a stand-alone food. In such cases, Salmonella is associated with almost 30 percent of potato outbreaks, as well as the bacteria Listeria, which is associated with deli counters, kitchen areas and cold salads.
- Cheese (83 outbreaks and 2,761 reported cases since 1990) Most people who get sick from cheese do so from products consumed at home. Cheese is frequently left unrefrigerated which can lead to contamination and food poisoning.
- Ice cream (74 outbreaks and 2,594 reported cases since 1990) Ice cream can contain Salmonella or Staphylococcus, and most outbreaks are linked to homemade ice cream made in private homes. The ice cream can also be contaminated via cross contamination during processing. Soft-serve ice cream may also be a risk, as Listeria can live on metal surfaces in soft-serve ice cream machines.
- Tomatoes (31 outbreaks and 3,292 reported cases since 1990) Salmonella can enter a tomato plant through its roots or flowers, as well as through cracks on the skin, the stem scar or through the plant itself and is responsible for over half of the tomato outbreaks. Norovirus can also contaminate tomatoes. Most often illnesses occur after eating contaminated tomatoes in restaurants.
- Sprouts (31 outbreaks and 2,022 reported cases of since 1990) Salmonella and E. Coli are the most common bacteria associated with sprouts. The warm, humid conditions sometimes used to encourage seeds to germinate make sprouts more vulnerable to bacterial contamination. The FDA and CDC recommend that the elderly, young children and those with weakened immune systems avoid eating raw sprouts.
- Berries (25 outbreaks and 3,397 reported cases since 1990) are another common source of food poisoning. Cyclospora bacteria in berries can cause severe diarrhea, cramps and dehydration and requires antibiotics to treat.
What Can You Do to Reduce Your Risk?
The ways you prepare, cook, serve, and store food can increase or decrease the risk of food borne illness. The following six principles can help keep food safe.
- Avoid cross-contamination. This occurs when you use the same knife, counter, or cutting board to cut raw chicken, then raw vegetables for a salad, or fresh fruits for dessert, or a loaf of bread. Just as your hands can spread germs to the food you will eat, so can a knife or a cutting surface. When a utensil comes in contact with raw meat it should be thoroughly washed before cutting anything else.
- Cook food to a safe temperature. This means using a meat thermometer when cooking meat, fish, or chicken. All meats should be cooked to at least 145 degrees–even if rare–but poultry and pork should be cooked to at least 165 degrees, ground beef to 160 degrees.
- Wash your hands frequently. Always wash your hands before cooking, after handling raw meat, after using the restroom, and before eating. The number one cause of food-poisoning is poor hand washing.
- Keep raw foods separate from ready-to-eat foods when shopping, preparing food or storing food.Refrigerate or freeze perishable foods promptly (within two hours of purchasing or preparing them).
- Defrost food safely. Do not thaw foods at room temperature. The safest way to thaw foods is to defrost foods in the refrigerator or to microwave the food using the “defrost” or “50 percent power” setting. Running cold water over the food also safely thaws the food.
- Throw it out when in doubt. If you aren’t sure if a food has been prepared, served or stored safely, discard it. Leftovers should be put away in the fridge or freezer within two hours. When re-heating leftovers, only warm up enough for you to eat at that sitting; continuing the cycle of reheating food, placing it back into the refrigerator, then reheating it again the next day increases the chances of acquiring a food-borne illness.
Keep in mind that even with the best intentions and hygiene it’s still possible to be exposed to a contaminated food. And this is why many natural health experts recommend keeping your immune system in top working order at all times.