Common Food Poisoning Risks and How To Avoid Them This Summer

Common Food Poisoning Risks and How To Avoid Them This Summer
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Common Food Poisoning Risks and How To Avoid Them This Summer

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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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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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% of those illnesses.

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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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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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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 over 2,300 people have reported cases of scombroid poisoning, which can cause symptoms like abdominal cramps, nausea and diarrhea.

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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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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% compared to 24% of outbreaks).

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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 or 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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Outbreaks with potato occur in potato salads and other potato dishes, and more than 30% 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% 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 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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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. Over half of these illnesses were linked to E. coli infections that carry serious health risks and even death.

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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 can you practice safe food handling this summer? Read on to discover three expert tips to stay safe at your next cookout or picnic.

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Wash Hands and Surfaces

Even when you're dining outdoors, make sure to wash hands and surfaces food may come in contact with. The public health organization STOP Foodborne Illness recommends washing hands with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds and cleaning surfaces with hot soapy water or diluted bleach.

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Cook Meat to the Recommended Temperature

Use a meat thermometer to make sure you reach temperature guidelines when cooking meat. Hamburger patties should be cooked to 160 ºF, and large cuts of beef can be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 ºF for medium rare or 160 ºF for medium.

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Pack Your Cooler to the Max

A full cooler will stay cold longer than a partially filled cooler, and it's important to keep food chilled to slow down bacteria growth.

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Undercook your burger patties or leave out your potato salad for too long under the summer heat, and you could risk the chance of food poisoning. It's important to practice safe food handling at your next cookout or picnic. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 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.

Bacteria, viruses, parasites and harmful chemicals can cause foodborne illnesses. A 2011 CDC report estimates that more than half of illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths from foodborne pathogens in the U.S. are attributed to the virus Norovirus, commonly spread from sick people to food during handling due to improper handwashing. The bacterium Salmonella and the parasite Toxoplasma gondii are the most deadly pathogens and are usually caused by eating undercooked, contaminated meat.

In a recent Twitter chat hosted by ABC News chief health and medical correspondent Dr. Richard Besser, food-safety experts reveal that produce is the leading carrier of pathogens, but contaminated meat, fish and poultry can have far worse symptoms. When asked if sourcing food locally or abroad makes a difference, the University of Minnesota's Academic Health Center responded that "where food comes from is less important than how it is handled". Those who are at greatest risk for food-borne illness include young children, the elderly, pregnant women and individuals with weakened immune systems.

Check out the slideshow above to discover which foods cause the most foodborne-illness outbreaks and how to practice safe food handling in the summer.

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