Every year, one in six Americans gets sick from contaminated food – but the most common culprits may surprise you. Raw meat and shellfish are obvious risks, but fresh vegetables and fruits can pose problems of their own.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keeps track of the foods that make people sick. Using a decade of outbreak data, a CDC epidemiologist named John Painter was able to determine the most common sources of illness. These ranged from the mild, such as minor diarrhea and upset stomach, to the serious, when foodborne illnesses turned deadly.
Spinach — can make you sick when contaminated and eaten raw
Nearly half of all foodborne illnesses the CDC recorded in its report were caused by produce. Of those illnesses, the vast majority (22%) were linked to leafy vegetables like spinach, making leafy greens the most dangerous commodity of all of the food categories the CDC explored.
Since fruits and veggies are frequently consumed raw, any harmful bacteria introduced to the produce at any time during production could make you sick. Contaminated spinach typically harbors norovirus – the common stomach bug linked with vomiting and diarrhea – and sometimes carries E. coli as well.
Rinsing or washing your produce is a healthy protective step, but this merely decreases the possibility of contamination – it’s not a fail-safe, according to the CDC.
Chicken and poultry — problems in production have been linked to serious infections
More deaths documented in the CDC’s report were attributed to chicken and turkey than to any other food.
Part of the reason poultry got such a bad rap has to do with three large listeriosis outbreaks traced to turkey deli meat that occurred from 1998 to 2002. Listeriosis is a serious infection caused by listeria bacteria; its symptoms can range from fever and diarrhea to stiff neck, headache, and confusion. Pregnant women, children, and the elderly are the most at risk.
Still, it’s important to recognize that, just as it did with unpasteurized juices following several illness outbreaks, the FDA issued new regulatory standards aimed at increasing the safety of deli meat in the years following the listeriosis outbreaks.
Sprouts — the moist environment they’re grown in can breed bacteria
The moist conditions in which sprouts are grown are also the perfect environment for bacteria – especially salmonella, which can cause diarrhea, fever, and painful stomach cramps. Of particular concern are contaminated seeds.
“A few bacteria present on the seeds can grow to high numbers of pathogens on the sprouts,” the CDC wrote on its food-safety page.
Unpasteurized juice — easily tainted by raw fruit
- Saaleha Bamjee/Flickr
From 1995 to 2005, thousands of people across multiple states got sick after drinking tainted unpasteurized juice. The US Food and Drug Administration has since enacted stricter safety regulations for juice producers, but problems have occasionally surfaced.
The issue with unpasteurized juices is that any bacteria or parasites present on the fruit – such as salmonella, E. Coli, or cryptosporidium – can be easily transferred to the finished product.
Shellfish — bottom feeders concentrate bacteria
As bottom feeders, shellfish gradually strain microbes from the sea over many months – building up any marine toxins present in the seawater.
Oysters, for example, can concentrate vibrio bacteria that are naturally present in seawater or other microbes such as norovirus that are present in human sewage dumped into the sea.
Dairy and eggs
- Wikimedia Commons
Foods that mix the products of many animals, like bulk raw milk or pooled raw eggs, are particularly dangerous because any bacteria that is present in one of the animals can taint the entire batch. While salmonella is the most common culprit, it can be especially hazardous in eggs because certain types of the bacteria can infect a hen’s ovary without causing visible changes to the egg.
Ground beef and roast chicken
As in dairy products, the main problem with ground beef and roast chicken is that they mingle the products of many animals.
“A single hamburger may contain meat from hundreds of animals. A broiler chicken carcass can be exposed to the drippings and juices of many thousands of other birds that went through the same cold water tank after slaughter,” the CDC notes.