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Posted in Our Blog on April 21, 2023
If you have ever experienced food poisoning, I am sure it provides you with vivid memories. Terrible pain or discomfort, entirely too much time spent in the bathroom, and for some – a trip to the hospital. You are not alone. Here is the down low on the Top 10 Risky Foods to Eat.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 48 million people fall ill from harmful bacteria or viruses in food each year. Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli to name a few. Most recover on their own and get by with letting the bug run its course or over-the-counter help, but for others it is more serious. Nearly 130,000 people become sick enough to require hospitalization and around 3,000 die from their foodborne illness each year.
Some groups are more susceptible to severe symptoms and are at higher risk. The very young (children under the age of 5), the elderly, those who are pregnant, and those who have a weakened immune system due to existing disease or illness, medication, or some other factor fall into that category.
Consumer Reports Investigates
Consumer Reports, founded in 1936, is an independent, nonprofit organization of more than 6 million members created to provide people with credible, trustworthy information so that they can make informed decisions about their purchases. The organization “works side by side with consumers for truth, transparency, and fairness in the marketplace.”
Their efforts to empower and inform consumers incentivizes corporations to act responsibly, and encourages policymakers to prioritize the rights and interests of consumers to “shape a truly consumer-driven marketplace.”
In a recently published report, Consumer Reports investigated the foods most often linked to foodborne illnesses.
This study analyzed foodborne outbreaks over the last 6 years (2017 through 2022) with data compiled from the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture. To analyze foodborne illness, some recall data was not considered in the study.
Recalls occur for many different reasons, not just because of food poisoning. Recalls due to undeclared allergens or potentially containing extraneous materials were not included in the investigation.
Bacterial or viral contamination was the major focus. The top ten offenders were ranks based on recall data. Indicators included: how many people died or became ill, how widespread the outbreaks were, repeat offenders (how many times a food was recalled), and the total amount of food that was recalled.
Consumer Reports is not suggesting consumers boycott these foods. “We aren’t saying people need to avoid these foods entirely,” says Brian Ronholm, director of food policy [at Consumer Reports], who led the analysis. “After all, these foods are all usually safe, and many of them are in fact important parts of a healthy diet.” Instead, he says the list underscores the “importance of following best food safety practices with all of your foods, including knowing how to track, and respond, to food recalls when they happen.”
Flour ranks as #10 on the Consumer Reports riskiest food list. Recalls for uncooked flour, cookies, brownies, cake and pancake mixes, and premade cake batter were recalled for potential contamination with E. coli and Salmonella bacteria.
Flour can become contaminated in the field from wild animal droppings (such as birds and deer) or runoff from nearby livestock farms. Contamination may also be introduced in the milling process where the grains are turned into flour. The milling process does not kill the bacteria. “Only cooking them as part of normal food preparation will make them safe.”
Two major recalls landed flour in the #10 spot.
The first took place in 2019 where a type of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli was linked to cookie and brownie mixes. This outbreak sickened 21 people across nine states.
The other took place in 2021. The tainted product was cake mixes. This outbreak included 16 people across 12 states.
Flour Safety Tips
One of the riskiest things you can do with flour is to eat it raw. Of course, most people would not think to spoon a scoop of raw flour in their mouth. We are talking about dough or batter that uses raw flour. Not only can the flour be potentially contaminated, but your may also fall ill from Salmonella that could be lurking in the raw eggs in the batter.
We recommend storing flour and baking mixes away from ready-to-eat foods such as fresh produce or cooked foods. This starts in your shopping cart and then when storing in your kitchen at home. “Flour is light and powdery, and can easily fly around in your kitchen and come into contact with counters, cutting boards, plates, and the like.”
Remember to wash surfaces and utensils as well as your hands with hot, soapy water.
#9 Melons, #8 Peaches, and #7 Papayas
Ranking at #9, 8, and 7 are melons (such as cantaloupe), peaches, and papayas respectively. Recalls for precut cantaloupe, honeydew, and watermelon as well as whole cantaloupe, papaya, and peaches were identified. Mostly for the potential presence of the harmful bacteria, Salmonella.
Contamination is most often introduced when cantaloupes and melons are cut. “When you cut into produce, you increase the risk of transferring bacteria that may be on its surface into its flesh, says James E. Rogers, PhD, director of food safey research and testing at Consumer Reports. “In commercial facilities, with fruits and vegetables processed in one place, it can create opportunities for cross contamination.”
Peach contamination often occurs due to upwind animal feedlots. This was the case for a 2020 recall involving nearly 113 million pounds of fruit. The strains of Salmonella found in the fruit were similar to those previously found in cattle and poultry. While often irrigation water is the source, in this case investigators believed it was contaminated dust and soil that was deposited on the crops.
The risk associated with papayas stems from the difficulty the FDA has with inspecting production outside of the United States. Many of the papayas consumed in the United States are imported from Mexico.
Melon, Peach, and Papaya Safety Tips
Pre-cut fruit is the riskiest of foods in these categories. Avoid pre-cut fruit, especially if you are in a more susceptible population. Select whole fruit free from bruises or damage – bacteria can seep into the compromised flesh. Scrub and wash fruit prior to cutting or eating to reduce your risk.
#6 Turkey and #5 Chicken
Chicken and turkey are next on the Consumer Reports list of riskiest foods. Recalled products include ground, whole, and parts of chicken and turkey. The primary bacteria baddie was Salmonella.
Salmonella is particularly widespread in chicken and turkey food production. The slaughter process and defeathering often spreads the bacteria. Additional handling involved in cutting birds into parts and subsequent grinding introduces additional opportunities for contamination.
One scary fact you may not know, is that poultry producers are legally allowed to sell contaminated product. It is almost impossible to avoid contamination. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) allows Salmonella “in up to 9.8% of whole chickens it tests at a processing plant.” This number rises to an allowable 15.4% in chicken parts and a scary 25% in ground chicken products.
In an independent Consumer Reports test, almost a third of samples were contaminated with Salmonella. It was found in 23 of the 75 samples taken.
One old wives tale could be a recipe for disaster. NEVER wash your chicken in the sink. Harmful juices may aerosolize and transfer to other surfaces, spreading contamination throughout your kitchen.
Turkey and Chicken Safety Tips
Use care when shopping, storing, and preparing poultry such as chicken and turkey. Keep raw food separate from cooked or ready-to-eat foods until they are fully cooked. When cooking, be sure that an internal temperature of 165 °F is reached and a proper meat thermometer is used.
Coming in at the #4 spot for Consumer Reports riskiest foods is onion. Does that surprise you? It surprised me too. This produce staple made the top 5 due to two huge recalls of red, white, and yellow onions in 2020 and 2021 for potential contamination with the harmful bacteria Salmonella.
The two recalls combined sickened 2,167 and hospitalized 427. Irrigation water was cited as the likely causes; however livestock and bird droppings could not be ruled out. Additionally, onion packing houses and “food contact surfaces, which had not been inspected, cleaned, or sanitized as frequently as necessary,” may have also contributed to the contamination.
Onion Safety Tips
Cooking onions can kill harmful bacteria. But we know that sometimes raw onions are needed to complete a dish. Choose clean, un-bruised onions to decrease the likelihood of bacteria entering the damaged flesh.
While refrigeration isn’t necessary, proper storage can help reduce risk. Store onions in a well-ventilated area out of direct sun. While it may be tempting, do not was onions in advanced. Wash them just before you plan to use them. Moisture can make the onion rot faster, increasing the risk of bacterial growth.
#3 Ground Beef
Holding onto the #3 spot is ground beef. Major contamination risk for ground beef involves both Salmonella and E. coli bacteria. This contamination often occurs during the slaughter process, where contents of the cow’s gut make its way into the meat.
A very scary type of E. coli known as a Shiga Toxin-Producing E. coli or STEC can be found in ground beef. But contamination with this bad bug has significant consequences. The USDA requires any beef lots testing positive for STEC to be recalled, even if there are no reported illnesses.
A more common concern in ground beef is Salmonella. Of the 642 illnesses reported during the range explored in the study, 416 were attributed with salmonellosis, or infection with the Salmonella bacteria.
Ground beef ranks as a higher risk than whole cuts such as steak, roast, or tips because ground meat may come from more than one animal and is more processed due to the nature of the product. In this way, bacteria from one source can become widely spread in the final product. Additionally, bacteria is often only surface level on whole meat and more easily killed when cooked properly. This is not the case in ground beef, where the bacteria can be mixed throughout the meat requiring it to be complete cooked all the way through to kill the bacteria.
Ground Beef Safety Tips
Segregating raw ground beef is a huge first step in preventing foodborne illness. When shopping, place meat in separate, disposable bags and place it in a container in the fridge. If freezing, be sure the original package is tightly sealed or repackage it in a tightly sealed package.
Having separate cutting boards and tools for raw meat is another great way to mitigate risk. Wash any utensil that has encountered raw meat before using it again. Wash hands in hot soapy water after handling meat. If meat juices spill, reach for a paper towel or cleaning wipe instead of a sponge so that the contaminated material can be thrown away immediately.
Temperature control is another biggie when it comes to ground beef safety. The rule of thumb is to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. “Bacteria levels can double in as little as 20 minutes between 40° F and 140° F.” Thawing meat in the refrigerator and putting away leftovers as soon as possible are ways to stay within that range. When cooking, the internal temperature should be measured with a meat thermometer and reach 160° F.
#2 Cheeses and Deli Meat
We are close to uncovering the riskiest food category. Cheese and deli meat rank pretty high on the list and pose a significant health risk. Recalled products during the investigated period include sausage, salami, ham, lunch meats, sliced cheese, and soft cheeses such as brie and queso fresco.
What do they all have in common? Listeria!
Listeria thrives in the cold conditions of deli cases and refrigerated storage areas. The amount of handling that block of cheese or ham goes through from order to order also contributes to potential contamination. With so many meat products coming in contact with surfaces such as the countertop, slicer, or even gloved hands (if not changed between each individual product and task), the opportunities are countless.
In addition to number of recalls linked to this category, the sheer severity is also why it ranks at #2. “Ninety percent of people infected with it end up being hospitalized. In pregnant people, an infection can lead to miscarriages and stillbirths.” Scary!!
Cheeses and Deli Meat Safety Tips
Cooking is known to kill Listeria bacteria, but most folks do not wish to do that with their meats, and it is impractical to do so with cheese – unless you intended it for that purpose. Purchasing prepackaged deli meats and cheeses is a somewhat safer option as “some research suggests that they may be less likely to lead to illness from Listeria infection.”
An even better option is to avoid cold cuts entirely, or at the very least limit how often you consume them. In fact, those in the high-risk category should avoid them all together. The risk is just too great.
#1 Leafy Greens
Cue the music! Wait. No music? That’s ok. The next category is dramatic enough. Coming in at the #1 spot is leafy greens. This category is brought to you by romaine lettuce and bagged salad recalls. Key bad bugs include both E. coli and Listeria.
Outbreaks traced to leafy greens were responsible for the most deaths and the second largest recalls/outbreaks.
These produce items are primarily grown in Arizona and California domestically. The likely cause of contamination involves contaminated irrigation water. E. coli, especially certain deadly STEC strains are often found in cattle. Manure containing this scary bug can seep into irrigation water and contaminate crops.
There are only a few processing plants around the country, so many different crops and farms’ lettuce are processed. One bad batch can potentially spread to millions of cases of produce.
We experience two massive recalls in 2021. One from Dole involving 76 products. Another from Fresh Express involving more than 100 products. “Concentration in the salad processing industry means a greater chance of contamination and larger outbreaks when they happen.”
Additionally, equipment contamination is very difficult to get rid of. Once one part of the equipment becomes contaminated, it easily spreads throughout the processing plant as the food conveys through it.
Also, lettuce is generally eaten raw. No heat killing option for romaine.
Leafy Greens Safety Tips
Don’t want to bake your leafy greens? I don’t blame you. Consider purchasing whole-head lettuce instead of bagged options. These have less processing and fewer potential contamination steps. Consumer Reports also suggests removing outer leaves, “which is where bacteria often lurks.” If possible, opt for hydroponic and green house grown lettuce which are less likely to come in contact with animal droppings.
Stay on Top of Food Recalls
Pay attention to food recalls and check your pantry and refrigerator to be sure that you have safe food for your family. Local news, the FDA website, and of course www.MakeFoodSafe.com are your go-to sources for food safety.