13 foods that can make you sick
Food poisoning is a horrible, even potentially life-threatening experience. But it's hard to determine if food is safe to eat, partly because problems are relatively rare.
But knowing which foods are potentially risky can help. What helps even more is that the FDA-regulated foods most often linked to outbreaks tend to be the same year after year. (That list includes produce,seafood, egg, and dairy products, but not meat.)
Be aware of the risk, but don't avoid these types of food. "They are everywhere and are part of a healthy diet," says Center for Science in the Public Interest senior staff attorney, Sarah Klein.
Yes, they're your favorite go-to salad greens—lettuce, escarole, endive, spinach, cabbage, kale, arugula, and chard.
But they also caused 262 outbreaks involving 8,836 reported cases of illness between 1998 and 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Remember bagged spinach in 2012?)
Greens can be contaminated by manure, dirty water rinses, or unwashed hands before you even purchase them. To avoid getting sick, wash produce and prevent cross-contamination (improper handling of meat in the kitchen can spread bacteria to other types of food, including greens) by washing hands and using separate cutting boards.
This breakfast favorite has been linked to at least 138 outbreaks since 1998, most often due to Salmonella bacteria. The bacteria can lurk inside the egg, so proper cooking is key (which kills the germs). Avoid eating any products containing raw eggs, including cookie dough. And refrigerate eggs before using them.
"Our food supply is safe," says Craig Hedberg, PhD, of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis. "There is roughly one illness for every three to four thousand meals served,” he says. Still, "raw food items like eggs may have contamination and need to be handled properly."
This type of fish can be contaminated by scombrotoxin, which causes flushing, headaches, and cramps.
If it is stored above 60° 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).
“You just can’t cook out all the things wrong with the food supply right now,” CSPI's Klein says.
And with tuna and all seafood, "freshness is what's most important," she adds. "Seafood needs to be kept appropriately cold from the moment it comes out of the water to the time it hits your plate."
Before being transformed into a pricey delicacy, oysters lurk on the ocean floor doing what they do best—filter feeding.
And if the water they are filtering is contaminated, so are the oysters. (Or they can be contaminated during handling.)
If served raw or undercooked, oysters can contain germs—mostly a gut-churner called norovirus and a bacterium known as Vibrio vulnificus—that can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
A freshly scrubbed spud that’s properly cooked is unlikely to cause illness. But watch out for potato salad, especially potato salad that's prepared at a restaurant or deli.
Cross contamination—the transfer of germs from one type of food, usually meat, to another—can be the source of the problem and this can happen easily at the deli butcher case, says Klein.
Potato-related outbreaks of illness have been traced to germs like Listeria (which can live on deli counters), Shigella, E. coli, and Salmonella.
While restaurants are a key source of other food-related outbreaks, most people who get sick from cheese do so from products consumed at home.
Cheese can be contaminated with bacteria like Salmonella or Listeria, which can cause miscarriages. (That’s why doctors warn pregnant women to avoid soft cheeses, such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined, and Mexican style cheese.)
I scream, you scream. We all scream from ice cream? Ice cream has been linked to 75 outbreaks caused by bacteria like Salmonella and Staphylococcus between 1990 and 2006.
One such outbreak occurred in 1994, when a batch of ice cream premix was transported in a truck that had carried nonpasteurized eggs, and then used to make ice cream without re-pasteurizing. In that instance, Salmonella sickened 224,000 people.
Infection can also occur when people make ice cream at home using raw eggs.
Although tomatoes were found “not guilty” in a 2008 outbreak that sickened thousands (the culprits were jalapeños and Serrano peppers), this summer favorite is a common cause of foodborne illness.
“Lettuce or tomatoes may be contaminated, but once they enter a household, you can make sure that you don't allow the bacteria to grow and multiply,” says Hedberg.
To do this: 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 it before eating; and keep fruits and vegetables that will be eaten raw separate from other foods.
While sprouts are practically the poster child for healthy food, they are also highly vulnerable to bacterial contamination. "The seeds sprout in warm, moist conditions. It's like a spa for bacteria," says Klein.
The FDA and CDC recommend that the elderly, young children, and those with weakened immune systems avoid eating raw sprouts.
And healthy people should take an extra note of caution as well. "Raw sprouts are just too dangerous," says Klein. "If you're really committed to your sprouts, just saute them before adding them to anything."