When the government shuts down, only "essential" employees stay on the job. Apparently, that list does not include roughly half of the Food and Drug Administration. And because all of those employees have been furloughed until Congress passes a continuing budget resolution, the FDA has suspended food safety inspections.
We citizens, of course, still need to eat -- which creates a potentially risky situation for all of us.
Though local and state agencies may still be on the job, there are millions of tons of food every day that enter the country for consumption. Even when the FDA is at full strength, problems slip through the cracks.
%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%In fact, the Center for Science in the Public Interest recently came out with a report on "Ten Riskiest Foods Regulated by the U.S. FDA." The list was compiled using statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and analyzes food outbreaks and reports of illness between 1990 and 2006.
During that time, the following 10 foods -- regulated by the FDA and in ascending order -- were the most oft cited as causing illness.
It stands to reason that, with inspections shut down, consumers might be at an even higher risk until Congress gets its act together.
The 10 Most Risky Foods, According to the FDA
10 Foods to Avoid While FDA Inspections Are Shut Down
Though Hepatitis A was responsible for a nationwide outbreak in 1997, 80 percent of all cases of illness from contaminated berries were a result of Cyclospora. The illness is caused by a parasite that infects the intestines and causes stomach problems, including diarrhea.
Sprouts may look harmless, but they can harbor both Salmonella and E. Coli, which have caused outbreaks over the years. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that seeds can become contaminated before sprouting. The second is that they grow in warm and humid climates, which are perfect conditions for bacteria to flourish.
As with sprouts, Salmonella is the most common culprit in tomato-related outbreaks, followed by the norovirus. Tomatoes can become contaminated either through their root systems or small breaks in the tomato skin. Be sure to cook your tomatoes thoroughly before eating, and be careful when ordering them when eating out: 70 percent of reported illnesses were contracted through tomatoes served at restaurants.
Even kids who hate to eat their fruits and veggies aren't immune to food-borne illnesses. A 1994 Salmonella outbreak was traced an ice cream company using the same truck to transport raw unpasteurized eggs as it used to move ice cream mix. Pregnant moms need to take extra care, as well, as the Listeria bacteria can survive on metal surfaces like those used in ice cream shops.
As with ice cream, the dangers in cheese are primarily traceable to two culprits: Salmonella and Listeria. Soft-cheeses are particularly prone to harboring Listeria.
Believe it or not, potatoes themselves are almost never to blame for outbreaks. Instead, people get sick from all the things that potatoes come into contact with between being pulled from the ground and served up on your plate. Salmonella, E. Coli, Shigella and Listeria have all caused outbreaks in the past. Contamination from other ingredients in things like potato salad, as well as from bacteria that live on deli counters, is often to blame.
Not surprisingly, seafood causes many sicknesses. Oysters are the second-most common culprits in seafood-related illnesses. The creatures are sometimes harvested from waters containing the Norovirus, which causes intestinal inflammation. But the more dangerous Vibrio bacteria can cause a host of illnesses, including -- in people whose immune systems are compromised -- fevers, chills, skin legions, and even death.
When it comes to contamination, tuna ranks as the most dangerous seafood for human consumption. Almost all cases of sickness were caused by Scombrotoxin, which is not caused by a bacteria or virus, but rather is the result of tuna decaying, due to not being refrigerated immediately after being caught. Scombroid poisoning can lead to nausea, cramps, and diarrhea, and the toxin can't be eliminated through cooking or canning.
Between them, the top two foods on this list have caused more illnesses than the rest of the list combined. Not surprisingly, Salmonella is the most common culprit in egg-linked outbreaks. Salmonella survives in the intestinal tracks of chickens, and can only be assuredly killed by cooking eggs thoroughly.
Though leafy greens might seem harmless -- and indeed, healthful -- it actually makes sense that they account for so many outbreaks since greens are rarely cooked at temperatures that kill harmful bacteria. Norovirus was responsible for 64 percent of the reported cases, and is often transmitted when handlers have not washed their hands. Salmonella and E. Coli each accounted for 10 percent of the outbreaks as well.
Though taken as a whole, consumers still aren't very likely to be victims of food poising, those with small children or compromised immune systems should be especially careful while the FDA's inspections are shut down, and be sure to cook their food thoroughly.
Brian Stoffel is a Motley Fool contributing writer.