Salad Greens, Eggs, and Tuna Top List of Make-You-Sick Foods


TUESDAY, Oct. 6, 2009 ( — Leafy greens such as spinach, cabbage, and kale are rich in healthy nutrients, but they also top the list of the 10 riskiest foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which released the list Tuesday at a press conference in Washington, D.C.

Leafy greens are one of the easiest ways to get food poisoning because they can be contaminated with germs such as noroviruses, Salmonella, and E. coli O157:H7. Leafy greens have accounted for 363 outbreaks of foodborne illness and have sickened 13,568 people since 1990, according to the consumer advocacy group.

Also on this list of hazardous groceries: eggs, tuna, oysters, potatoes, cheese, ice cream, tomatoes, sprouts, and berries. The FDA is responsible for regulating produce, seafood, egg, and dairy products (but not meat), and these 10 foods account for close to 40% of all foodborne illness outbreaks associated with FDA-regulated foods. (You can view the list as a slideshow, the 10 Types of Food That Can Make You Sick).

If contaminated, the top 10 risky foods (as well as other types of food that didnt make the list) can cause stomach cramps and diarrhea, or much more serious problems that can result in kidney failure and death. “Some of the most healthful and ubiquitous foods are falling in the top 10 riskiest foods,” says Sarah Klein, a staff attorney for the CSPI. “Consumers certainly shouldnt avoid these foods, because they are everywhere and are part of a healthy diet,” she says.

Currently there is legislation in Congress that seeks to modernize the food safety program. “We need to bring food safety and the FDA into the 21st century,” she says.

Next Page: How to minimize your risk [ pagebreak ]Consumers can take commonsense steps to minimize their risk of developing food poisoning, she says. Washing your hands frequently and thoroughly when handling food can help, as can using separate cutting boards for meat and produce. (Improper handling of meat in the kitchen can spread bacteria to other types of foods.) You should also use a meat thermometer to make sure that meat reaches a temperature high enough to destroy harmful bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7.

That said, many instances of contamination occur during food production rather than preparation. For example, tuna, which ranks number three on the CSPI list, can be contaminated by scombrotoxin, which can cause flushing, headaches, and cramps. If it is stored above 60 degrees after being caught, fresh fish can release the toxin, which cannot be destroyed by cooking (and is unrelated to mercury contamination or other problems related to tuna and other fish). Tuna has been linked to 268 scombroid poisoning outbreaks since 1990.

“You just cant cook out all the things wrong with food supply right now,” Klein says.

I scream, you scream, we all scream from ice cream? Ice cream was linked to 75 outbreaks caused by bacteria such as Salmonella and Staphylococcus since 1990, according to the new list. The largest outbreak occurred in 1994, when a batch of pasteurized ice cream premix was transported in a Salmonella-contaminated truck, and then used to make ice cream without re-pasteurizing.

“People are making ice cream at home and using raw eggs in the household,” explains Craig Hedberg, PhD, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis.

Next Page: What to do if you get sick [ pagebreak ]“Our food supply is safe,” stresses Hedberg. “There is roughly one illness for every three to four thousand meals served." Still, he adds, “raw food items like eggs may have contamination and need to be handled properly.”

For example, “lettuce or tomatoes may be contaminated, but once they enter a household, you can make sure that you dont allow the bacteria to grow and multiply,” he says. To prevent the spread of bacteria, wash hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap before and after preparing fresh produce; wash fruits and vegetables under running water just before eating, cutting, or cooking (even if you plan to peel them before eating); and keep fruits and vegetables that will be eaten raw separate from other foods.

“If you suspect you have developed a foodborne illness, make sure you stay hydrated,” says Hedberg. “If you have a fever or develop bloody diarrhea, see your physician. Beyond that, if it looks like an outbreak, contact your state or local health department so they can start the investigation process.”

CSPI keeps a running database of foodborne illness outbreaks. The group also looked for additional reports of food poisoning connected to FDA-regulated products between 1990 and 2006.