Produce, Poultry Top List for Potential Foodborne Illnesses

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Many people's New Year's Resolutions involving trying to eat more healthy foods. But what if trying to eat those foods could make us sick? Obviously, that is a possibility that's been highlighted in a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).


    The CDC estimates that more than 9 million foodborne illnesses that are caused by major pathogens happen each year. “Preventing these illnesses is challenging because resources are limited and linking individual illnesses to a particular food is rarely possible except during an outbreak,” the CDC reported.

    The researchers used data from illnesses associated with outbreaks that were associated with both simple and complex food from 1998-2009 and then estimated the annual foodborne illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths that were attributable to each of 17 food commodities during this time period. The researchers attributed 46 percent of illnesses to produce; however, more deaths were attributed to poultry. “To the extent that these estimates reflect the commodities causing all foodborne illness, they indicate that efforts are particularly needed to prevent contamination of produce and poultry,” the researchers stated.

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    So what particular foods proved to be problematic? Leafy greens were at the top of the list with 22 percent more illnesses than any other commodity. Furthermore, illnesses associated with these vegetables were the second most frequent cause of hospitalizations (at 14 percent) and the fifth most frequent cause of death (at 6 percent). The CDC researchers pointed to produce as the food source for about half of the norovirus outbreaks from an identified food during 2001-2008 and the second most frequent food source for E. coli outbreaks from 1982-2002. The E. coli were primarily transmitted by spinach and lettuce. Salmonella spp. was primarily transmitted by tomatoes, juice, mangoes, sprouts and peppers.

    Poultry actually accounted for the most deaths (19 percent) of any commodity, often due to Listeria or Salmonella spp. The CDC researchers pointed to ready-to-eat delicatessen meats as being the highest risk food.  Dairy products were the second most frequent food source linked to infections that caused illnesses (14 percent) and deaths (10 percent).

    So how can you avoid foodborne illnesses? The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service suggests the following steps:

    • Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often. The USDA recommends that everything that touches food should be clean. Thoroughly wash your hands in warm, soapy water for 20 seconds. In addition, wash with hot, soapy water all surfaces that come in contact with raw meat, poultry, fish and eggs before starting the next step in food preparation. Consider using paper towels to clean kitchen surfaces because you can throw them away. If you use dishcloths, wash them often in the washing machine’s hot cycle.
    • Separate: Don’t cross-contaminate. The Partnership for Food Safety Education recommends separating raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs from other foods in the grocery cart, grocery bag or refrigerator. Use separate cutting boards for fresh produce and for raw meat, poultry and seafood. Never place cooked food on a plate that has been used for raw meat, poultry, seafood or eggs.
    • Cook: Cook to proper temperatures. Use a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature of cooked meats, poultry and egg dishes to make sure they’re at a safe internal temperature. Roasts and steaks should be cooked to a minimum of 145 degrees Fahrenheit while poultry should be cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Ground meat, which can be infected bacteria during grinding, needs to be cooked to at least 16o degrees Fahrenheit. Eggs should be cooked until the yolk and white are firm and not runny. The Partnership for Food Safety Education recommends not eating eggs that are raw or partially cooked. Fish should be cooked to 145 degrees Fahrenheit or until it is opaque and separates easily with a form. Make sure that when microwaving, no cold spots remain in the food since these can harbor bacteria. Also bring sauces, soups and gravy to a boil when reheating. Leftovers should be heated thoroughly to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
    • Chill: Refrigerate promptly. Cold temperatures slow the growth of harmful bacteria. Try to keep a constant refrigerator temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below in order to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses. The freezer temperature should be 0 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Defrost food in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave. If you use one of the latter two methods, cook the food immediately.  Always marinate food in the refrigerator. Never let raw meat, poultry, eggs, cooked food or cut fresh fruits or vegetables sit at room temperature more than two hours before refrigerating or freezing them.

    And if you’ve bought produce, what should you do? An NPR story talked to a number of experts who recommended either rinsing or doing a two-minute soak in water, which can remove 98 percent of bacteria. Additionally, slice off the bloom and stem ends of the fruit since they are where bacteria and dirt are usually trapped.

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:
    Aubrey, A. (2007). What does it take to clean fresh food? NPR.
    Good Safety and Inspection Service. (2011). Cleanliness helps prevent foodborne illnesses. U.S. Department of Agriculture.
    Painter, J. A., et al. (2013). Attribution of foodborne illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths to food commodities by using outbreak data, United States, 1998-2008. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
    Partnership for Food Safety Education. (2010). Safe food handling.

Published On: January 30, 2013