But knowing which foods are potentially risky can help. What helps even more is that the FDA-regulated foods most often linked to outbreaks tend to be the same year after year. (That list includes produce, seafood, egg, and dairy products, but not meat.)
Be aware of the risk, but don't avoid these types of food. "They are everywhere and are part of a healthy diet," says Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) senior staff attorney, Sarah Klein.
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Yes, they're your favorite go-to salad greens—lettuce, escarole, endive, spinach, cabbage, kale, arugula, and chard.
But they also caused 262 outbreaks involving 8,836 reported cases of illness between 1998 and 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Remember bagged spinach in 2012?)
Greens can be contaminated by manure, dirty water rinses, or unwashed hands before you even purchase them. To avoid getting sick, wash produce and prevent cross-contamination (improper handling of meat in the kitchen can spread bacteria to other types of food, including greens) by washing hands and using separate cutting boards.
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This breakfast favorite has been linked to at least 138 outbreaks since 1998, most often due to Salmonella bacteria. The bacteria can lurk inside the egg, so proper cooking is key (which kills the germs). Avoid eating any products containing raw eggs, including cookie dough. And refrigerate eggs before using them.
"Our food supply is safe," says Craig Hedberg, PhD, of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis. "There is roughly one illness for every three to four thousand meals served,” he says.
Still, "raw food items like eggs may have contamination and need to be handled properly."
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Meat, which is regulated by the USDA not the FDA, caused at least 33,000 illnesses from 1998 to 2010, according to a CSPI report. Chicken was the top offender, with 455 outbreaks linked to almost 7,000 illnesses. Ground beef was second. In August 2013, 50,000 pounds of ground beef were recalled due to possible contamination with dangerous E. coli O157:H7. Raw food from animalsundercooked meat, raw eggs, raw milk, and raw shellfishare the most likely foods to be contaminated, says the CDC. Treat uncooked meat and poultry as potentially contaminated, and make sure to cook them thoroughly. Clean any surfaces that meat has come into contact with, and follow FDA guidelines on food prep to avoid getting sick.
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This type of fish can be contaminated by scombrotoxin, which causes flushing, headaches, and cramps.
If it is stored above 60° after being caught, fresh fish can release the toxin, which cannot be destroyed by cooking (and is unrelated to mercury contamination or other problems related to tuna and other fish).
“You just can’t cook out all the things wrong with the food supply right now,” CSPI's Klein says.
And with tuna and all seafood, "freshness is what's most important," she adds. "Seafood needs to be kept appropriately cold from the moment it comes out of the water to the time it hits your plate."
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Before being transformed into a pricey delicacy, oysters lurk on the ocean floor doing what they do best—filter feeding.
And if the water they are filtering is contaminated, so are the oysters. (Or they can be contaminated during handling.)
If served raw or undercooked, oysters can contain germs—mostly a gut-churner called norovirus and a bacterium known as Vibrio vulnificus—that can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
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A freshly scrubbed spud that’s properly cooked is unlikely to cause illness. But watch out for potato salad, especially potato salad that's prepared at a restaurant or deli.
Cross contamination—the transfer of germs from one type of food, usually meat, to another—can be the source of the problem and this can happen easily at the deli butcher case, says Klein.
Potato-related outbreaks of illness have been traced to germs like Listeria (which can live on deli counters), Shigella, E. coli, and Salmonella.
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While restaurants are a key source of other food-related outbreaks, most people who get sick from cheese do so from products consumed at home.
Cheese can be contaminated with bacteria like Salmonella or Listeria, which can cause miscarriages. (That’s why doctors warn pregnant women to avoid soft cheeses, such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined, and Mexican style cheese.)
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I scream, you scream. We all scream from ice cream? Ice cream has been linked to 75 outbreaks caused by bacteria like Salmonella and Staphylococcus between 1990 and 2006.
One such outbreak occurred in 1994, when a batch of ice cream premix was transported in a truck that had carried nonpasteurized eggs, and then used to make ice cream without re-pasteurizing. In that instance, Salmonella sickened 224,000 people.
Infection can also occur when people make ice cream at home using raw eggs.
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Although tomatoes were found “not guilty” in a 2008 outbreak that sickened thousands (the culprits were jalapeños and Serrano peppers), this summer favorite is a common cause of foodborne illness.
“Lettuce or tomatoes may be contaminated, but once they enter a household, you can make sure that you don't allow the bacteria to grow and multiply,” says Hedberg.
To do this: wash hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap before and after preparing fresh produce; wash fruits and vegetables under running water just before eating, cutting, or cooking, even if you plan to peel it before eating; and keep fruits and vegetables that will be eaten raw separate from other foods.
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While sprouts are practically the poster child for healthy food, they are also highly vulnerable to bacterial contamination.
"The seeds sprout in warm, moist conditions. It's like a spa for bacteria," says Klein.
The FDA and CDC recommend that the elderly, young children, and those with weakened immune systems avoid eating raw sprouts.
And healthy people should take an extra note of caution as well. "Raw sprouts are just too dangerous," says Klein. "If you're really committed to your sprouts, just saute them before adding them to anything."
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Another common source of food poisoning is berries, including strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries.
The CDC traced an outbreak of hepatitis A in 2013 to a frozen berry mix. A 1997 outbreak that sickened thousands of children via school lunches was also traced to hepatitis A-contaminated frozen strawberries (possibly from a farm worker in Baja California, Mexico).
Other cases—linked to imported raspberries from Chile and Guatemala—have been caused by a germ called Cyclospora, which causes severe diarrhea, dehydrations, and cramps.
Hundreds of products around the nation were recalled after 42 people in 20 states were sickened from peanut butter tainted with Salmonella. All products originated from a processing plant in New Mexico.
In 2008 and 2009, more than 700 people got sick, again after eating peanut butter contaminated with Salmonella. This type of contamination occurs during processing so the best consumers can do to protect themselves is to watch closely for recall notices. Or consider shopping at retailers who notify you if you buy a product that is later subject to a recall, Klein says.
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There's nothing inherently dangerous about melons but the CDC has recorded several recent outbreaks related to cantaloupes, a member of the melon family.
In 2012, 261 people were infected with Salmonella after eating cantaloupe grown on a farm in Indiana. Three of those people died. The year before, 147 people were sickened and 33 died, after eating cantaloupe contaminated with Listeria. Another 20 got Salmonella from this fruit.
"Consumers should be scrubbing the surface of their melons just like potato using a stiff brush and running water," says Klein. "It's like trying to scrub off an English muffin . . . [but] when you're cutting the melons you're not bringing stuff from the outside right down into the interior."
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Raw milk is milk that hasn't been pasteurized or heated to kill bacteria. It goes straight from the cow to your table.
Skipping the pasteurization step basically means that the same bacteria that can be found in beef may also turn up in your daily glass of calcium: Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E. coli.
The solution is simple: avoid raw milk completely and raw milk cheese, particularly if you're pregnant or are immune-compromised.