The number one food that causes food poisoning

It seems we can’t go more than a week without hearing about the latest recall—but that might be a good thing. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) constantly tracks outbreaks and identifies what causes food poisoning to help keep people safe.

The CDC’s Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System (FDOSS) collects data on foodborne illness outbreaks (“outbreaks” are when two or more people have a similar illness resulting from eating a common food). Between 2009 and 2015, there were 5,760 outbreaks reported, which resulted in more than 100,000 illnesses.

What causes food poisoning?

The food category responsible for the most outbreaks is chicken. Chicken? That’s right. Between 2009 and 2015, chicken was responsible for 3,114 outbreak-related illnesses, or 12 percent of all food poisoning cases. These are the 8 signs of food poisoning you need to look out for.

It’s a nutritious and healthy protein that’s perfect for dinner. (Here’s the proof!) It’s so easy and delicious that Americans eat more chicken every year than any other meat. Because we eat, and handle, so much chicken, there’s a greater chance of cross-contamination between raw and undercooked chicken and other foods.

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15 Common Food Poisoning Risks
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Every year 48 million Americans, or roughly one in six people, get sick from foodborne illnesses, and about 3,000 cases each year are deadly. Find out which common foods carry the highest risk of food poisoning.

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Chicken

Between 1998 and 2010 in the United States, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) reports that chicken accounted for 452 outbreaks that sickened 6,896 consumers, more than to any other meat or poultry product. Most outbreaks are caused by bacteria Clostridium perfringens, found in poorly prepared food or food left to stand too long, and bacteria Salmonella, which often contaminates poultry during slaughter and processing.

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Ground Beef

Ground beef carries a very high risk of foodborne illness because contamination with antibiotic-susceptible and resistant strains of E. coli and Salmonella can occur, leading to hospitalization, severe symptoms with long-term health effects or death.

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Eggs

Most illnesses from egg consumption are due to Salmonella, sickening more than 11,000 people from 1990 to 2006. Federal regulations in the 1970s have reduced transmission of Salmonella from external fecal contamination of the shells, but today's most common type, Salmonella enteritidis, infects the ovaries of healthy hens and is transmitted to the egg even before the shell is formed. Eating your eggs raw or runny can increase your risk of illness.

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Tuna

Scombroid is the leading cause of illness for tuna dishes and occurs when improperly stored fresh fish start to decay and release natural toxins. The SCPI's Outbreak Alert! database shows that more than 2,300 people have reported cases of scombroid poisoning, which can cause symptoms like abdominal cramps, nausea and diarrhea.

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Oysters

Most cases of illness with oysters occurred in restaurants and are attributed to Norovirus and bacteria Vibrio. While other foods can become contaminated with Norovirus from improper handling, oysters can pick up the bacteria from the waters they are harvested from, making them risky to serve raw or undercooked.

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Pork

The CSPI reports that pork (other than ham, sausage and barbecue) sickened more than 2,000 people from 1998 to 2010, and most pork illnesses were linked to Salmonella. Interestingly, more outbreaks occured at consumers' homes than in restaurants (40 percent compared to 24 percent of outbreaks).

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Turkey

From 1998 to 2010, there have been 130 turkey-related foodborne outbreaks that have caused 4,349 documented illnesses (second only to chicken among meat and poultry products) most commonly attributed to Clostridium perfringens. The CSPI explains that the spike of outbreaks in the months of November and December are due to improper handling of turkey holiday meals that are left out at room temperature for too long.

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Potatoes

Outbreaks with potato occur in potato salads and other potato dishes, and more than 30 percent of potato-related outbreaks are linked to Salmonella. Since these dishes contain many ingredients, the causes of contamination can occur from any of the raw ingredients or from improper handling of a raw meat or poultry ingredient.

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Other Beef Products (Not Steak, Ground or Roast)

Other beef products, such as beef jerky, beef stroganoff and chipped beef, are responsible for 99 outbreaks and at least 2,414 illnesses from 1998 to 2010 according to the CSPI. Improper handling after cooking may explain most cases of illness.

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Barbecue Beef or Pork

The barbecue cooking method is unique in that it cooks with low, indirect heat and requires after-cooking handling. The CSPI's study of meat-related foodborne illness deems it "medium risk" for causing nearly 2,500 people to get sick from 1998 to 2010, often from pathogens such as Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium perfringens that may be signs of improper handling. In addition, nearly 40 percent of these outbreaks occurred in a restaurant.

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Roast Beef

Traditional roast beef, brisket or pot roast involve oven-roasting thick cuts of meat in a shallow pan, boiling on a stovetop or cooking on a closed grill. According to CSPI, 2,470 people got sick from eating roast beef from 1998 to 2010, and more than half were sickened by Clostridiium perfringens, a sign that the meat stood at room temperature for too long before being served.

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Cheese

Cheese can become contaminated with pathogens during production, and most cases of illness were due to Salmonella. Nowadays, cheese is made with pasteurized milk which lowers the risk of illness; however, unlicensed manufacturers may still use unpasteurized milk, so consumers should be wary, especially for Latin American-style cheeses like queso fresco and queso oaxaca.

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Steak

The popular cooking method for steaks is searing, when the meat's surface is cooked at high heat over a short period of time. Only the pathogens on the surface are killed, which might explain the 82 foodborne outbreaks that have caused nearly 2,000 illnesses form 1998 to 2010. More than half of these illnesses were linked to E. coli infections.

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Leafy Greens

In an analysis of a decade of foodborne outbreak data in the U.S., a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found that leafy vegetables account for the most illnesses, surprisingly outnumbering animal food categories like beef and poultry. The pathogen Norovirus, which can contaminate food when it is handled by a sick person, causes 46 percent of those illnesses.

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Ice Cream

The largest ice cream-related outbreak occurred in 1994, when an ice cream manufacturer used the same truck to haul unpasteurized liquid eggs and pasteurized ice cream premix. The Salmonella-contamined premix was used in ice cream products that sickened thousands of people across 41 states. Another major source of food poisoning is homemade ice cream due to the use of undercooked eggs.

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How to protect your family

It’s important to make sure your chicken is handled safely and cooked thoroughly because undercooked chicken often contains illness-causing bacteria (including salmonella). The CDC makes the following recommendations:

  • Place chicken in a plastic bag before putting in your shopping cart or refrigerator to prevent raw juices from contaminating other foods.
  • Wash your hands with warm soapy water for 20 seconds before and after handling chicken. Use this expert-recommended technique.
  • Do not wash raw chicken. (Here’s why.)
  • Use a separate cutting board for raw chicken and follow guidelines for cutting board care.
  • Never place cooked food or fresh produce on a plate, cutting board or other surface that previously held raw chicken.
  • Wash cutting boards, utensils, dishes and countertops with hot, soapy water after preparing chicken.
  • Use a meat thermometer to make sure chicken is cooked to a safe internal temperature of 165° F.
  • Refrigerate or leftover chicken within 2 hours (or within 1 hour if the temperature outside is higher than 90° F).

You should also avoid these 8 common mistakes you might be making with raw chicken. But chicken isn’t the only culprit. Here are 13 other surprising foods that could give you food poisoning.

RELATED: Food safety questions 

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Should you wash your turkey before cooking it?

Whether it’s a Thanksgiving turkey or a weeknight piece of pork, rinsing poultry, meat or eggs before cooking them is likely to do more harm than good. Besides the fact that any bacteria you think you’re washing away should be killed off when cooked, “you’re increasing your chances for cross-contamination,” since the meat’s juices can land in your sink or on your countertop and mingle with other foods, Steinberg says.

Should you wash pre-washed produce?

Giving your spinach or snap peas another scrub-down isn’t being safe, it’s being sorry for potentially exposing the greens to harmful bacteria in the sink or on your countertop – and for wasting your time. "If bacteria managed to survive the chlorinated wash in the processing plant, it will likely survive the additional rinsing at home," says Steinberg, who recommends buying non-bagged produce if you’re going to wash it anyway. Just be sure to rinse it under running water – not soap, detergent, bleach or commercial washes, suggests Foodsafety.gov, which is run by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Can you wash potatoes in the dishwasher?

Speaking of detergent, Steinberg has been surprised by how many people think washing potatoes in the dishwasher is a cute hack rather than a bad idea. “The dishwasher wasn’t designed to wash food; it was designed to wash dishes,” she says. “And whether or not there’s soap in there that cycle, you have residual chemicals that have gone through that machine.” And don’t even try arguing that eating dishwasher-cleaned potatoes is the same as eating off a dishwasher-cleaned plate: Your potatoes, unlike your dishes, are sponges for risky agents, Steinberg says.

Do you need to wash watermelon?

Among the foods you actually do need to wash – but may assume get a pass – are fruits with rinds like watermelon, cantaloupe and oranges. “Wash all produce because whatever’s on the outside will be transferred to the inside” when you slice into it, Steinberg says. Even food with peels like bananas should ideally be washed since your hands can transfer bacteria on the peel to your mouth. To wash sturdy fruits and vegetables thoroughly (cucumbers count, too!), use a clean produce brush, Foodsafety.gov suggests.

How often do you need to wash your hands when cooking?

In the case of hand-washing while cooking, more is better. Foodsafety.gov recommends doing so for 20 seconds with plain soap and warm water before, during and after preparing food, and especially after handling uncooked eggs, raw meat, seafood or poultry. And don’t forget to remove your jewelry before cooking, adds Monica Amsterdam, director of nutrition at the Medical and Wellness Center of New Jersey. “Jewelry can hold and harbor microorganisms contaminating the food that we’re eating,” she says, as can touch-screen devices. “If you have to use your electronic device while cooking, make sure to disinfect it first,” Amsterdam says.

What's a recipe's 'rest time'?

Recipes that have rest times – or how long the dish should rest off the heat before digging in – have them for a reason: “to allow the product to cook thoroughly,” says Janell Goodwin, a technical information specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Take that goal a step further, she suggests, by using a food thermometer to see if your meal has reached what the USDA considers safe. “The most underutilized utensil that is really the secret of cooking is the food thermometer,” Steinberg says, since you're also likely to overcook foods if you rely solely on, say, the juices' color.

Is the 5-second rule legit?

If you drop that steamy, buttery croissant on the ground, resist the temptation to grab it and pretend like nothing happened, Goodwin says. New research supports her: In a recent study, researchers found that all kinds of foods can become contaminated with harmful bacteria after less than one second on the floor, although the longer they’re grounded and the wetter the food, the riskier it seems. If your dog or cat licks your food, consider it untouchable, too, Goodwin adds. “Our pets, although we love them dearly, can carry harmful bacteria in their mouths that aren't necessarily harmful to them, but can be harmful to us,” she says.

Can you cool food in the refrigerator?

Your guests are hungry and you’ve got a hot pot of chili to appease them – key word being “hot.” How can you serve it quickly without burning their tongues? While you can put hot food in the fridge, Steinberg says, it’s important to do it in smaller portions so that the food cools uniformly and as quickly as possible. “Improper cooling,” she adds, “is a big way that people get foodborne illness.” If you want to store, not serve, hot food, follow the same protocol or put it in shallow containers or an ice bath, while stirring every 10 minutes or so, Steinberg suggests.

How long is food safe on the counter?

Good food, drink and conversation can make it easy to forget just how long ago you abandoned that casserole on the counter. But if it’s been close to or over two hours, don’t try to salvage it, experts say. “Throw it out; it should never be reheated” at that point, Steinberg says, since a couple of hours at room temperature is plenty of time to accumulate bacteria that won’t be killed off. Hot or cold foods shouldn’t be transported at room temperature for more than two hours either, she adds. “Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.”

How long can I keep leftovers?

Nothing beats a thick sandwich stuffed with leftovers from yesterday’s Thanksgiving feast. A lot beats a thick sandwich stuffed with leftovers from last week’s Thanksgiving feast. “Never [eat leftovers] beyond seven days,” says Steinberg, who recommends an even more conservative three or four day limit for meats and poultry. Remaining food, however, doesn’t have to go to waste: Almost all food can be frozen indefinitely, Goodwin says. “Freezing … prevents the growth of microorganisms that cause both food spoilage and foodborne illness,” she says. Check out the USDA’s app to look up the recommended storage times for thousands of foods.

How many times can you reheat something?

Every time you reheat, say, mashed potatoes, you’re sending them into what Steinberg calls “the temperature danger zone” – that range between 40 and 140 degrees F that’s prime for harmful bacteria growth. While one zap through the microwave is safe so long as your food's cooked to 165 degrees F, thoroughly stirred and reheated in an explicitly “microwave-safe” container, reheating and re-refrigerating the same batch day in and out just multiplies the food’s visits through the danger zone, Steinberg says. Instead, only reheat what you know you can eat. “You get one try,” she says.

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