From cramping to diarrhea to muscle aches, food poisoning is discomforting at best and deadly at its worst. Each year, it affects roughly one in six Americans, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Of those affected, 3,000 people die each year.
To curb food poisoning and other potentially deadly illnesses caused by contaminations, the CDC, Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture all monitor food recalls and foodborne outbreaks. Utilizing that data, Consumer Reports has released an analysis of the riskiest and most recalled foods of the past six years.
According to the nonprofit organization, it’s not all doom and gloom.
“We aren’t saying people need to avoid these foods entirely,” Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports, reported on the analysis. “After all, these foods are all usually safe, and many of them are in fact important parts of a healthy diet.”
Consumer Reports ranked leafy greens as the riskiest foods that readers should know about. With 4,390,638 reported cases recalled in the past six years, E. coli and listeria outbreaks related to leafy greens have claimed 11 lives, caused 614 illnesses and spawned 50 major recalls or outbreaks. Specifically, romaine lettuce and bagged salads are responsible for the most deaths, according to the analysis.
Contaminated water used to irrigate the fields that grow these leafy greens in California and Arizona are likely to blame for many of the contaminations within the past years, Ronholm said. While many may wash their lettuce, few cook their leafy greens — adding to the risk of infection.
“Heating kills bacteria, but most people, understandably, don’t want to cook their lettuce,” James E. Rogers, PhD, director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports said. If you are at a higher risk of complications caused by food poisonings, consider buying cooked greens — such as kale, collards and Swiss chard — instead.
Rather than buying bagged or boxed lettuce, Consumer Reports suggested buying whole-head lettuce. Remove the outer leaves of the lettuce, Rogers said.
Cheeses and deli meats
Cheeses and deli meats are ranked second for being relatively risky food products. Over the past years, there have been 16,925,594 pounds of recalled deli meats and cheeses. Listeria and salmonella bacteria from these foods caused seven deaths, 409 illnesses and 122 major recalls or outbreaks within the same time period.
Sausage, salami, ham, lunch meats, sliced cheeses, and soft cheeses can be infected with listeria because of the amount of time these foods are touched by someone’s hands, most notably when these foods go to the slicer at the store. Purchasing prepackaged deli meats and cheeses can lessen the risk of contracting listeria or salmonella, Rogers said.
With 13,744,438 pounds of recalled meat in the past six years, ground beef is the third riskiest form of food. The 22 major recalls or outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella over the past years have caused two deaths and 643 reported illnesses.
Packaged ground beef can be infected with Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) if the corresponding cow was infected when slaughtered. This form of E. coli can be especially dangerous.
“Ground beef contaminated with any STEC bacteria should not be sold, period,” Rogers said.
Many cases of ground beef contamination, however, are caused by salmonella. To reduce the risk of contamination, always keep ground beef isolated from other foods. When cooking, make sure the beef reached 160°.
With 78,015,814 pounds of recalled food, onions earned the fourth highest spot on Consumer Report’s list of the riskiest foods. No deaths have been reported in relation to onion recalls over the past six years, but there have been a reported 2,167 illnesses over the past year’s 13 major recalls or outbreaks.
Red, sweet and white onions can be contaminated with salmonella, sometimes by contaminated irrigation water, bird droppings or nearby infected livestock. While refrigeration is not needed, cooking onions can kill salmonella bacteria. The report also suggested avoiding bruised onions, as bacteria can more easily enter damaged food. Wash your onions just before using them.