Sorry, Your Salad Will Make You Sick—and That Chicken Might Kill You

A new report from the CDC details a decade's worth of foodborne illness.

foodborne illness

Leafy greens, like spinach, are the leading cause of foodborne illness, according to the report. (Photo: David Paul Morris/Getty Images)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Move over, hamburger. The food item most likely to make Americans sick is something we tend to think of as healthy: leafy greens. The food item most likely to kill us? Poultry. Those are the findings of an important new report on foodborne illness released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The study tracked foodborne illness from 1998-2008 and is said to include the most comprehensive estimates published by the agency.

But don’t toss out that chicken Caesar salad just yet, say officials.

“We know the vast majority of foods are safe,” says the CDC’s Dr. Patricia Griffin, one of the report’s authors.

“When the average American looks at this data, they need to know that we are not trying to make estimates of the risk of illness per serving of any of the food categories,” she says. “We are just providing information on what are the food categories that are the major sources of illness…so regulators can take action to make food safer.”

So which pathogen is most likely to put you in the hospital? Salmonella’s the winner, responsible for an estimated 19,336 hospitalizations and 378 deaths; but it was norovirus (which is spread from human to human) that caused the most number of illnesses—an estimated 5.5 million cases.

Estimates are used, says the CDC report, because “only a fraction of illnesses are diagnosed and reported.” What we do know is the problem of foodborne illness is widespread. The CDC believes one in six American’s (approximately 48 million people) get sick from foodborne illnesses each year, and 3,000 die. The report’s findings are expected to be used by the government and food industry as they begin to implement the long-awaited Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

Food-related outbreaks have grabbed headlines frequently, including several high-profile, deadly outbreaks of tainted produce, such as the Jensen Farms listeria-tainted cantaloupe incident, the deadly 2006 E. coli outbreak linked to fresh spinach, and the more recent and widespread Sunland peanut butter recall.

While leafy greens and chicken were at the top of the list, the report shows that nearly half of all foodborne illnesses are linked to produce in general—news that might make it tougher on parents whose “eat your vegetables” mantra is heard nightly around the dinner table. Most produce items that caused illness were those that are commonly consumed raw.

Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Produce Marketing Association, says that it’s important to remember that the new CDC report only looks at data collected up to 2008.

“That was just two years after the spinach outbreak of September 2006,” she tells TakePart. Since then, a great deal has been done to improve the safety of produce, she says, including the creation of the Leafy Greens Marketing agreement designed to address food safety; research done at the Center for Produce Safety at University of California, Davis; and the release of the first two produce rules for the FSMA. Indeed, growers have been taking safety issues seriously, including produce giant Earthbound Farm, which was at the center of the 2006 spinach outbreak. The company is currently working on new techniques, like high-power ultrasound to sanitize delicate greens that cannot withstand high heat.

Leafy greens and poultry weren't the only culprits, of course. Ground beef, sprouts, raw milk, cheese, eggs, oysters and other products were identified, and many were involved in product recalls.

So how can you best protect yourself from contaminated or unsafe food?

“I know it can be frustrating for people to hear, but there’s only so much consumers can do,” Dr. Tim F. Jones, state epidemiologist for the Tennessee Department of Health, tells TakePart. “For fresh produce, the solution is higher up in the food chain at the farm and packing level.”

But he warns that no one is suggesting that consumers cut back on vegetables and fresh produce. Standard advice still applies. Be sure to wash all fruits and vegetables well, including those you may peel or cut into. Keep your hands and work surfaces such as cutting boards and countertops clean. Cook meats and seafood to recommended temperatures.

“Outbreaks get a lot of attention, but basic things like hygiene are still really important,” says Jones.

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