Every year, more than 9 million people get sick from foodborne illnesses. And while some of the deadliest outbreaks have been linked to unusual sources, such as cantaloupes or peanut butter, it's the foods you eat every day that are most likely to make you sick.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has just published an 11-year review of foodborne illness outbreaks in this country, finding that foods you eat every day are the most likely to make you sick. Nearly half—46 percent—of all illnesses were linked to fruits and vegetables, illnesses the Food and Drug Administration is hoping to prevent with a new rule that "proposes enforceable safety standards for the production and harvesting of produce on farms." Among those standards: testing irrigation water to ensure it doesn't harbor any disease-causing microorganisms and requiring farms to install hand-washing stations so farmworkers can prevent spreading bacteria after using the restroom.
Those new rules, required by the Food Safety and Modernization Act that was signed into law in January 2011, may be welcome changes to the report's authors, who found that these three classes of foods are among the most heavily contaminated:
Leafy greens. More illnesses were caused by leafy vegetables (22 percent) than by any other food the CDC looked at. These veggies were also the second leading cause of hospitalizations. Various strains of E. coli were behind a large majority of the outbreaks, particularly a strain called ETEC, which is usually the cause of "traveler's diarrhea."
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Poultry. Diseases found in poultry products killed the most people of any of the diseases the CDC monitored, and based on its data, Listeria and Salmonella were behind the worst of the outbreaks. While they didn't separate out poultry by individual animal, the nation's largest food recall ever occurred in 2011 when agri-giant Cargill had to recall 36 million pounds of Salmonella-contaminated ground turkey. Sadly, selling contaminated meat is technically legal under current food-safety laws: The U.S. Department of Agriculture allows 49.9 percent of ground turkey samples to test positive for Salmonella and still be sold to consumers.
Dairy. Dairy products accounted for 14 percent of illnesses. Although the CDC didn't separate out which items were most likely to make you sick, ice cream and cheese have both been implicated in past outbreaks. One of the primary culprits is Listeria, a potentially deadly bacterium that can lives for long periods of time on food-processing equipment, such as meat and cheese slicers, metal ice cream machines, and even in the cracks in food-prep counters. The other most common disease harbored in dairy products is norovirus, the "stomach flu" bug that can contaminate products when food processors and other workers who handle dairy products don't properly wash their hands.
The best way to avoid contaminated food is to buy it as close to the source as possible; the fewer hands that have touched your food, the less likely it is to become contaminated. But you don't have to fear your food if big, anonymous grocery-store chains are your only option. To learn more about maintaining a healthy kitchen, see:
• The 10 Dirtiest Foods You're Eating
• How to Avoid the Top 10 'Riskiest Foods'
Published on: January 30, 2013
Updated on: February 1, 2013