Despite the efforts of the federal government to keep America’s food supply clean, every year nearly 80 million people in the United States fall ill after eating food contaminated with dangerous bacteria such as salmonella, listeria, and E. coli. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that approximately 5,000 Americans inflicted with food poisoning die every year.
Although there is no way to completely avoid the bacteria that lead to food borne illnesses, there are some ways to reduce your risk of becoming sick. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has issued a list of 10 foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration that are most commonly linked to outbreaks.
In issuing the list, the CSPI does not intend for consumers to avoid the foods most often contaminated altogether. Instead, it hopes that educating the public about the risks will help consumers dodge the bacteria rather than the foods themselves. Please note that the list does not include meat, which is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
- Leafy greens (363 outbreaks; 13,568 cases): lettuce, processed and bagged salad, and other greens account for nearly a quarter of all non-meat outbreaks, such as the 2006 spate of salmonella illnesses linked to fresh spinach. Generally, the more food is processed, the more opportunity it has to become contaminated by dirty water, equipment, and hands.
- Eggs (352 outbreaks; 11,164 cases): Salmonella bacteria is sometimes passed from chicken to egg, and consumption of raw or undercooked eggs may cause illness. The bacteria is also sometimes transferred from the shell to other surfaces, such as the hands or food prep counter, causing cross contamination.
- Tuna (268 outbreaks; 2,341 cases): fresh fish is highly perishable. When tuna starts to decay, it releases a poison called scombrotoxin, which causes headaches, cramps, diarrhea, eyesight loss, and other symptoms.
- Oysters (132 outbreaks; 3,409 cases): Oysters feed by filtering the water they live in. If they live in dirty water, then the shellfish may become contaminated. They may also become contaminated by improper handling and storing. Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are the typical results of eating a bad oyster that is undercooked or raw.
- Potatoes (108 outbreaks; 3,659 cases): Cross contamination is usually the way good potatoes go bad. While whole potatoes that are scrubbed and baked are normally safe, potatoes that are processed in the deli (potato salad for instance) sometimes come into contact with germs from other substances such as meat. Preparing potatoes on contaminated deli or restaurant counters also leads to food-borne illnesses.
- Cheese (83 outbreaks; 2,761 cases): easily contaminated by salmonella and listeria. Soft cheese like feta, blue, and brie are typically to blame for food poisoning cases linked to cheese.
- Ice cream (74 outbreaks; 2,594 cases): outbreaks in the past have been caused by transporting ice cream in a salmonella-infected truck and contaminated ingredients added after pasteurization. Illnesses from homemade ice cream usually are usually the result of using raw eggs.
- Tomatoes (31 outbreaks; 3,292 cases): fresh tomatoes may appear clean, but they should always be washed thoroughly before using. Even fruits and vegetables that are peeled before eating should be washed, as the outer surface can contain a number of germs that can migrate to hands and other surfaces.
- Sprouts (31 outbreaks; 2,022 cases): warm, moist growing conditions required for growing sprouts are also ideal fro growing bacteria. The FDA and CDC recommend that young children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems avoid eating raw sprouts.
- Berries: (25 outbreaks; 3,397 cases): Berries imported from Central and South America have sickened people with Hepatitis A and Cyclospora, a germ that causes severe diarrhea, cramps, and dehydration.