For the first in our new series on foodborne illness, we will discuss the foods that most commonly cause food poisoning outbreaks.
People contract food poisoning, also known as foodborne illness when they consume food and drink that has been contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, or toxins. Foodborne illness can cause a wide range of symptoms, with the most common being abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and a loss of appetite.
Those most susceptible to most foodborne illnesses are people with chronic conditions and compromised immune symptoms, as well as small children, the elderly, and pregnant women.
Based on statistics kept by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), certain foods are more likely to cause food poisoning than others, especially if they are stored, prepared, or cooked improperly. These are the 9 foods most likely to be contaminated and lead to food poisoning.
#1 – Poultry
Raw and undercooked poultry has the highest risk and is more likely to be contaminated with foodborne bacteria. These can include chicken, duck, and turkey, and they are all more likely to be contaminated with one of two types of bacteria; Salmonella and Campylobacter. These bacteria are commonly found in the guts and feathers of the birds, but they are also often contaminated during the slaughtering process. These bacteria can survive up until the cooking process kills them.
According to researchers from the United States, the UK, and Ireland, as much as 84% of raw chicken sold in supermarkets was contaminated with Campylobacter bacteria, while up to 5 percent was contaminated with Salmonella. The rates of Campylobacter contamination were lower in raw turkey, ranging up to 56%, while the contamination rate for duck was 36%. In all cases, however, both Campylobacter and Salmonella are eliminated completely if the meat is cooked thoroughly.
In short, while food poisoning can happen to anyone, you can reduce or eliminate your and your family’s risk. Make sure you cook poultry thoroughly, do not wash raw meat and ensure that any surfaces and utensils are washed and disinfected thoroughly after your preparation. Avoid cross-contamination by not using utensils that have come in contact with poultry until you have cleaned them thoroughly. It’s a bad idea to chop lettuce with the same knife you just used to chop raaw chicken or turkey.
#2 – Vegetables and Leafy Greens
The second-most common source for food poisoning is vegetables and leafy greens, especially when the eaten raw. There have been many discussion in recent years regarding the relative health benefits of raw foods, but there is also a downside, as well, in that unsafe handling and undercooking can make you sick.
In recent years, fruits and vegetables have caused many outbreaks of food poisoning. The main culprits have included tomatoes, celery, cabbage, lettuce, and spinach. That is because vegetables and leafy greens can become contaminated with harmful bacteria, such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria, as they pass through the many stages of the supply chain. The contamination happens most often when the vegetables come in contact with unclean water and/or dirty runoff that sometimes leaches into the soil fruits and vegetables grow in. It is also possible for contamination to happen when vegetables come in contact with dirty processing equipment and/or preparation practices that are less than hygienic.
Leafy greens pose a special risk because they are often consumed raw. Over the 40 years ending in 2012, 85 percent of the food poisoning outbreaks in the US were caused by leafy greens like cabbage, kale, lettuce and spinach, and almost all were traced back to food prepared in a restaurant or catering facility.
To minimize your and your family’s risk, always wash salad leaves thoroughly before eating. Do not purchase bags of salad mix that contain spoiled, mushy leaves and avoid pre-prepared salads that have been left to sit at room temperature. To reduce your risk, always wash vegetables and salad leaves thoroughly and only purchase prepackaged salads that have been refrigerated.
#3 – Fish and Shellfish
Another common source of food poisoning is seafood, especially fish and shellfish. This is especially true of fish that has not been stored at the correct temperature; such fish has a high risk of being contaminated with histamine, a toxin produced by bacteria common in fish. Unfortunately, histamine cannot be destroyed by cooking. Histamine results in a type of food poisoning known as scombroid poisoning, which can lead to many symptoms, including nausea, wheezing, and swelling of the face and tongue.
Contaminated fish can also lead to ciguatera fish poisoning (CFP), in which fish contains ciguatoxin, which is mostly found in warm, tropical waters. According to health officials, every year, at least 10,000–50,000 people who live in or visit tropical areas get CFP. Like histamine, it is not destroyed by cooking.
Shellfish, like clams, mussels, oysters, and scallops also carry a risk of food poisoning because algae consumed by shellfish produce many toxins, and these can build up in the flesh of shellfish, posing danger to humans when they consume them. While store-bought shellfish are usually safe to eat, many shellfish caught from unmonitored areas may be unsafe due to contamination from sewage, stormwater drains and septic tanks. To reduce your risk, only purchase store-bought seafood and keep it properly refrigerated before cooking. Make sure fish is cooked thoroughly and be sure to cook clams, mussels, and oysters until they open. Be sure to toss out any shells that don’t open.
#4 – Rice
Rice is high-risk when it comes to food poisoning, despite its rank as one of the oldest cereal grains in common use and its use as a staple food for about half the world’s population. It is possible for uncooked rice to become contaminated with spores of Bacillus cereus, a bacterium that produces toxins that cause food poisoning.
These spores can live in dry conditions, which means they can survive in a package of uncooked rice in your pantry. Unfortunately, they can also survive the cooking process. If cooked rice is left standing at room temperatures, the warm, moist environment can cause the spores to multiply.
In order to reduce the risk to you and your family, it is always best to serve rice immediately after cooking and to refrigerate cooked rice as soon as possible after cooking. When reheating rice, ensure that it is steaming hot all the way through when serving.
#5 – Deli Meats
Deli meats, including ham, bacon, salami, and hot dogs, are often a common source of food poisoning because they can become contaminated with harmful bacteria including Listeria and Staphylococcus aureus at several points during the processing and manufacturing processes. Contamination often occurs directly through contact with contaminated raw meat or by poor hygiene practices by food handlers, whose poor cleaning and handling practices too often lead to cross-contamination from unclean equipment, especially slicer blades.
The reported rates of Listeria in sliced beef, turkey, chicken, ham, and paté range from 0–6%. Of all the deaths caused by Listeria-contaminated deli meats, 83% were caused by deli meat sliced and packaged at deli counters, whereas 17% were caused by pre-packaged deli meat products. That said, all meat carries some risk of food poisoning if it is not cooked or stored properly. Hotdogs, minced meat, sausages and bacon should always be cooked thoroughly and consumed immediately after cooking. Sliced lunch meats should be stored in the refrigerator until eaten.
#6 – Unpasteurized Dairy Products
All food manufacturers pasteurize dairy products, including milk and cheese, to make them safe to consume. Pasteurization is the process of heating a liquid or food to kill harmful microorganisms, and it kills harmful bacteria and parasites such as Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, Listeria, Salmonella, and E. coli. In fact, sales of unpasteurized (raw) milk and milk products are illegal in most states, including Texas.
Despite the laws and restrictions, between 1993 and 2006, there were more than 1,500 cases of food poisoning in the U.S., including 202 hospitalizations and two deaths, as a result of drinking raw milk or eating cheese made with unpasteurized milk. That is because unpasteurized milk is at least 150 times more likely to cause food poisoning and 13 times more likely to result in hospitalization than dairy products that have been pasteurized.
To minimize your risk of food poisoning from unpasteurized dairy, purchase only pasteurized products and store all dairy at or below 40°F (5°C). Also, throw out any dairy that is past its use-by date.
#7 – Eggs
While few would argue that eggs are among the most nutritious and versatile foods available, they are also a common source for food poisoning, especially when consumed when raw or undercooked. This is because eggs often carry Salmonella bacteria, which can contaminate both the eggshell and the inside of the egg.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, contaminated eggs were a major source of Salmonella poisoning in the US. Improvements have been made in egg processing and production since 1990, which means there far fewer egg-related Salmonella outbreaks. Even with the improvements, however, there are still 79,000 cases of egg-related food poisoning annually, leading to at least 40 deaths.
To reduce your risk, avoid buying or eating eggs with a cracked or dirty shell, and always choose pasteurized eggs, especially in recipes that call for raw or lightly cooked eggs.
#8 – Fruit
Among the most common carriers of foodborne illness are certain fruits, including berries, melons and pre-packaged fruit salads. All have been tied to outbreaks of food poisoning in recent years. Fruits that grow on the ground, like most melons, carry a high risk of causing food poisoning, primarily due to the presence of Listeria bacteria, which often grows on the rind and spreads inside to the flesh of the fruit.
Overall, there were 34 reported outbreaks of Listeriosis food poisoning associated with melons in the United States between 1973 and 2011. In all, 3,602 reported illness, with 322 hospitalizations and 46 deaths. Cantaloupes accounted for 56% of the outbreaks, with watermelons accounting for 38% and honeydew melons causing 6%. Cantaloupes are a particularly high risk because of its rough skin, which provides protection for Listeria and other bacteria. Even with thorough cleaning, it is extremely difficult to remove bacteria from them.
Berries, whether frozen or fresh, are also a common source of food poisoning, especially strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, all due to harmful viruses and bacteria, especially the virus hepatitis A. The primary reasons for berry contamination include being grown in contaminated water, berry pickers exercising poor hygiene, or cross-contamination with infected berries during processing. Risks can be reduced by washing fruit before eating or cooking them thoroughly. When eating melons, always wash the rind and either eat the fruit as soon as possible after it has been cut, or place it in the refrigerator. For best results, avoid pre-packaged fruit salads that have not been chilled or stored in a refrigerator.
#9 – Sprouts
Raw sprouts of any kind carry a higher-than-normal risk of causing food poisoning, whether they are bean, alfalfa, clover, or sunflower sprouts. This is primarily due to the presence of many bacteria, including E coli, Listeria, and Salmonella. Unfortunately, the seeds require warm, moist, and nutrient-rich soil conditions in order for the sprouts to grow and thrive; the same sorts of conditions that are are ideal for the rapid growth of bacteria.
There were 33 outbreaks from seed and bean sprouts documented in the US From 1998 to 2010, reportedly affecting 1,330 people. In 2014, bean sprouts contaminated with Salmonella bacteria caused food poisoning in 115 people, with a quarter of them being hospitalized. It is for that reason that the FDA issued an advisory warning to pregnant women that they are particularly vulnerable to the effects of harmful bacteria from various types of sprouts. The good news is, cooking sprouts helps kill any harmful microorganisms and, therefore, reduces the risk of food poisoning.
Developing a habit of thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables and thoroughly cooking almost everything you eat can help you avoid getting sick from the food you eat. While there can be long-term health benefits to eating raw food, it’s also necessary to realize that handling food properly is just as important as its state of preparation.