Each year, roughly 48 million Americans suffer from some type of food-borne illness. In the majority of cases, the culprit of what caused the illness remains a mystery. While notable outbreaks linked to contaminated fruits and vegetables (such as the listeria contaminated cantaloupe outbreak that occurred last summer) receive plenty of news coverage, the foods that frequently cause illness on a daily basis have long gone unknown.
However, a new report issued by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevent might have finally answered the questions surrounding which foods most often lead to illness. Based on a decade’s worth of data, the CDC has finally determined what food types represent the highest likelihood of illness.
Approximately half of all food-borne illness is the result of produce, most often contaminated with the norovirus, a types of stomach flu that causes roughly 20 million illnesses a year. In recent years, a new strain has begun to circulate throughout the U.S.
Poultry ranks as the food source most likely to lead to a fatal infection, with listeria and salmonella the germs most commonly the cause of these infections.
Researchers from the CDC were quick to point out that the findings of their study should not be interpreted as a list of foods to avoid. There are many causes of food-borne illness, and many of the foods listed should still remain a part of a healthy diet. Researchers hope that the results of the study cause people to become a little more cautious with how they prepare and store certain foods items frequently linked to food poisoning.
The report, which was published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, ranks as the most complete attempt to link illness to certain foods to date.
Every year in the U.S., approximately 128,000 Americans visit the hospital due to a food-borne illness, resulting in 3,000 deaths annually.
To compile the data for their report, researchers from the CDC examined nearly 4,600 different types of food-borne disease outbreaks that occurred between 1998 and 2008. Researchers had enough data to determine both the specific type of illness involved and the type of foods causing each outbreak.
Researchers then estimated the likelihood of a food-borne illness being involved in 17 different food categories. Included in the findings:
- Almost 50 percent of all illnesses were linked to contaminated produce. For the purposes of the study, the term produce referrers to leafy greens, nuts, fruits, in addition to vegetables.
- Among these types of produce, leafy greens had the highest likelihood of being involved in a food-borne illness. In most cases a norovirus was the illness involved.
- The second most common source of a food-based infection was dairy products.
- Contaminated poultry resulted in the most cases of death related to a food-borne illness, contributing to 19 percent of all cases involving a fatality. Combined, poultry and meat accounted for 22 percent of all food-borne illnesses and 29 percent of associated fatalities.
- While each of the 17 food categories used in the study attributed to some type of food-borne outbreak, the frequency of which varied in each category.
- Of all outbreaks, 50 percent involved foods that contained ingredients from a number of the other 17 categories.
- Eggs and dairy products led to 20 percent of all food-borne illnesses, and attributed to 15 percent of the deaths.
- Shellfish and fish accounted for approximately six percent of all illnesses and about six percent of all fatalities.
A previous study conducted by the CDC found that in cases where a strain of the nortovirus was involved the spread of the illness was directly linked to food handlers not washing their hands properly.
While eating out increases your risk of exposure to food-borne illnesses, you can also contribute to the spread of disease at home by not taking necessary precautions.
For example, using the same cutting board to slice vegetables immediately after using the board to cut raw chicken without washing it can increase your risk of infection. As can failing to properly wash your hands prior to preparing a meal. You can also increase your risk of illness by failing to wash vegetables purchased at the store prior to preparing them.
By practicing simple steps towards handling and preparing food properly, you can help to reduce your risk of catching a food-borne illness.
Timothy Lemke is a freelance health and science writer. To read more of his work, visit the website of Dr. Derek Conklin, a dentist in Sandy, OR.