The 10 most dangerous foods
We're halfway into 2014, and already there have been nearly 30 recalls by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which monitors meat, poultry and eggs), and about 125 food-related recalls from the Food and Drug Administration (which monitors everything else).
News reports make recalls seem like an alert for violent illnesses to come, but most recalls are a result of mislabeling—like forgetting an ingredient or calling something "gluten free" when it isn't.
There are plenty of recalls related to nasty pathogens in our food, but those typically only severely impact consumers who are more susceptible to foodborne diseases.
"As far as microbiological recalls, pay attention to it if you're at more risk," says Lynne McLandsborough, associate professor of food microbiology at University of Massachusetts Amherst. "If you're immunocompromised, if you're elderly, if you're going to be feeding these items to a child, then you should pay attention."
For the average Joe, cooking each meal thoroughly (a challenge with fruits and veggies) is the easiest way to prevent against foodborne illnesses. Here's a round-up of the most dangerous foods out there, and a few tips for how to enjoy them safely.
--By Taylor Kubota
Beef has been a real headline-maker this year with two massive recalls. In May, the Wolverine Packing Company in Detroit, Michigan recalled 1.8 million pounds of ground beef products that were potentially contaminated by E. coli 0157:H7, which is among the top five pathogens that contribute to hospitalization from foodborne illness.
The second big recall came out of Petaluma, California's Rancho Feeding Corporation and involved nearly 9 million pounds of beef and veal products. They were found processing diseased and unsound animals without inspection.
If an animal product recall isn't about beef, it's probably about chicken. So far this year there have been about a dozen chicken product recalls, amounting in approximately 1.5 million pounds of recalled poultry. Chicken recalls can be serious because it is a notorious host for salmonella and campylobacter.
People infected with salmonella often experience abdominal cramps, diarrhea and fever. Salmonella is also the deadliest of the foodborne illnesses, killing about 450 people each year. Campylobacter infections can cause diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, fever and vomiting. About 76 people die of campylobacteriosis each year.
Meat may get most of the attention, but produce is the leading cause of foodborne illnesses. Among vegetables, sprouts tend to be the most problematic because the ideal environment for a sprouting seed is also great for growing bacteria. If a sprout seed is contaminated by even a low number of organisms, the bacteria can cling to the roots and grow to large numbers by the time the sprout is ready for harvest.
Sprouts have such a serious potential for carrying pathogens that McLandsborough doesn't eat them and people at high risk for Listeria infections—like pregnant women—are advised against consuming them raw.
Spice recalls aren't as common as those for meat and poultry, but they're worth knowing about. There have been nearly a dozen spice recalls already this year. That may not sound like much, but each one has been for possible salmonella contamination (rather than the much more common recalls for mislabeling among other foods).
Most people are aware that eggs are prime targets for salmonella. It's why many parents—McLandsborough included—don't want their kids eating cookie dough. If you want to be safe, be sure to always cook eggs until the yolk is firm and, if you go to a restaurant, ask if they use pasteurized eggs when you want to eat something that combines multiple eggs. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and prevention, just one restaurant omelet can contain egg bits from hundreds of chickens.
The pasteurization of milk 100 years ago is still heralded by many as a major advancement in food safety. Although there are people who support raw milk, the CDC estimates that unpasteurized milk is 150 times more likely to cause foodborne illness and results in 13 times more hospitalizations than pasteurized milk.
Raw milk can carry salmonella, E. coli and listeria, which is a serious infection that most often affects older adults, pregnant women, newborns and adults with weakened immune systems. Symptoms of listeriosis include muscles aches, headache and gastrointestinal issues.
More: See our list of 5 non-dairy milk alternatives.
Many shellfish are filter-feeders, so they strain microbes from sea water throughout their lifetimes. This means that over time, they can accumulate high concentrations of pathogens that were present in their environment.
In particular, filter-feeders (especially oysters) have been found to carry a disease agent called vibrio. Vibrio infection can result in diarrhea, septicemia and wound infections. Cases are rare but increased 75 percent from 2006-2008 to 2013.
"As a food microbiologist, I'd like to eat raw oysters—I grew up eating them—but I don't eat them anymore," says McLandsborough. It's hypothesized that the jump in vibrio infections may merely reflect better monitoring but warming seas are another potential cause.
Like vegetables, fruits are inherently problematic because they are often consumed raw. Foodborne illness outbreaks related to fruit consumption are often traced back to unsanitary processing conditions—like cleaning or chilling with dirty water—or the use fresh manure, which can house microbes. Consumers are encouraged to wash fruits before eating them but that doesn't actually do much to protect them from potential pathogens.
As mentioned, the majority of food recalls aren't a big deal for most people because they involve mislabeling. This can, however, be a matter of life and death for those with severe food allergies. Because these types of recalls don't affect the health of the majority, they don't always get much attention. If you do have a serious food allergy and want to be kept up-to-date on recalls, you can sign up for automatic alerts on your phone, by RSS feed or by email.