Avoid Getting Sick from the Top 10 'Riskiest Foods'

A new report lists the tainted food culprits most likely to leave you sick, but there are ways to find safer food.

October 7, 2009

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Lettuce, eggs, tomatoes, sprouts. These health foods shouldn't make your stomach turn, but according to a new report, they are among the 10 riskiest foods regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That's because they're associated with a high percentage of the tainted-food scandals that have sickened people in this country over the past two decades. The 10 foods in the Center for Science in the Public Interest report accounted for 40 percent of foodborne outbreaks since 1990.

One solution? Go organic. While no farmer is completely immune to tainted food outbreaks, organic food production and distribution is more tightly tracked and regulated than other system,s giving organic consumers more peace of mind. Buying whole foods locally also cuts down on the number of opportunities for contamination to occur, such as in processing and packaging plants. "The biggest problems in agriculture are industrial production practices that have turned food into a commodity, and divorced a food product from human care and management," says Greg Bowman, editor of the Rodale Institute's New Farm publication, which promotes organic, sustainable agriculture.


Read on for the top 10 "riskiest foods," but don't be intimidated into not eating them. Heed our advice for lowering your risk, and try the recipes we suggest from the Rodale Recipe Finder.

10. Berries—According to the report, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and other berry products are to blame for 25 tainted-food outbreaks and 3,300-plus illnesses since 1990. Most of the cases involved imported fruit from Latin America that was contaminated with hepatitis A from an infected worker, or cyclospora, a parasitic illness that won't go away without antibiotics.

"Buy any risky produce crop from organic producers directly from the farm, when possible, or through regional or local retailers, where there is less or no comingling from many sources; sources can be identified quickly if something should go wrong, sources are more directly accountable because they are known to local buyers, distributors, and retailers," suggests Bowman. "The produce is also fresher, with fewer days in transit."

Healthy Recipe: Strawberry Jam

9. Sprouts— This class of food contains potent amounts of phytonutrients, and broccoli sprouts have even been shown to help prevent stomach cancer. Unfortunately, the seeds are sometimes contaminated with Salmonella or E. coli. Coupled with the warm, humid conditions needed for the sprouts to grow, the bacteria can spread quickly and cause food contamination. The elderly, young, and people with compromised immune systems are more at risk to this type of tainted food. If you love sprouts, try to find a grower in your region, and look into their track record to see if contamination is common. If it is, steer clear of eating that company's sprouts!

Healthy Recipe: Sweet and Spicy Chinese Chicken Salad with Sprouts

8. Tomatoes—Although linked to a multistate salmonella outbreak in 2005 and 2006, it's important to note that 70 percent of tomato-related tainted-food illnesses occurred in restaurant food. Salmonella can enter a tomato through the roots, the flowers, the stem scar, or small cracks in the fruit. It's hard to kill once it's inside. But that doesn't mean you should ditch eating raw tomatoes. Just buy locally grown, or grow them yourself, and in season, to shorten the distance from food to plate, which in turn lowers your risk of contamination. "Organic farm-system plans already have farmers thinking about formal separation from neighboring factory-farm manure storage, one source of contamination, and the source of most antibiotic-resistant strains of pathogenic bacteria," explains Bowman. "There is more incentive to have healthy farms producing healthy crops, with fewer attempts to kill bacteria post harvest through [chlorine] washes, fumigation, or irradiation."

Healthy Recipe: Whole Wheat Linguine with Creamy Tomato Pesto Sauce

7. Ice Cream—The largest ice cream tainted-food outbreak took place in 1994 when an ice cream company hauled ice cream premix in the same truck that had previously hauled raw, unpasteurized eggs. Thousands of people were sickened in 41 states. To find safer ice cream, first look for an organic dairy that allows cows to graze and eat grass—the animal's natural diet. Organic dairy cows aren't injected with hormones or antibiotics, substances often given to keep animals just healthy enough in filthy conditions. If you buy from a local dairy, you can actually tour the facilities. Avoid soft-serve ice cream if you worry about contamination because it's more likely to harbor Listeria, a bacterium that can live in metal ice cream machines.

Healthy Recipe: Peanut Butter Ice Cream Shake

6. Cheese—Cheese products have been linked to 83 outbreaks since 1990; Salmonella was the most common hazard among cheese products. In August, California officials warned consumers that some Latin-style cheeses, such as queso fresco and queso Oaxaca, were being made by unlicensed manufacturers using unpasteurized milk that could harbor harmful bacteria. To remedy this, look for local cheese makers in your area and ask them about their safety measures face-to-face.

Healthy Recipe: Vegetable Pizza with Goat Cheese

5. Potatoes—Although this veggie made the list, it's actually potato dishes like potato salad that are linked to foodborne illnesses. Cross-contamination is the main issue in such cases, and that's why it's always important to keep raw-meat prep areas separate from other foods. Also, make sure your potato salad stays cold in a cooler or ice chest when serving it at picnics or other outdoor events.

Healthy Recipe: Baked Potato Skins

4. Oysters—These slimy delicacies are responsible for about 2,000 reported illnesses, usually from Norovirus and Vibrio, a bacterium in the same family as the one that causes cholera. For oysters to become tainted food, improper handling during harvest or preparation usually occurs. Restaurant meals account for the bulk of oyster foodborne illnesses.

To better protect yourself, prepare your own and use farmed oysters (their production is better for the environment than harvesting wild ones, although that's not always the case with seafood), and avoid eating them raw. You can also opt to eat other foods that taste like oysters, such as oyster mushrooms and black salsify, also known as "vegetable oyster." It's a root veggie comparable to parsnips or carrots.

Healthy Recipe: Easy Oyster Stew

3. Tuna—If tuna isn't promptly refrigerated below 60 degrees Fahrenheit soon after being caught, natural toxins will begin to occur, such as scombrotoxin, which cannot be destroyed through cooking, freezing, smoking, curing, or canning. The toxin is responsible for sickening more than 2,300 people since 1990, according to the report. Symptoms include skin flushing, headache, abdominal cramps, nausea, diarrhea, palpitations, and loss of vision. Call your favorite tuna company and ask if they've been involved in any tainted-food outbreaks to determine if you want to keep doing business with them.

Also, since some species of tuna, along with other red-list fish that are nearly wiped out, it's best to choose albacore tuna from the U.S. because it's harvested in a more ecofreindly way.

Healthy Recipe: Mediterranean Tuna Wrap

No. 2. Eggs—Shell eggs and egg products accounted for 352 tainted food outbreaks between 1990 and 2006, with an overwhelming majority of illnesses linked to Salmonella that sickened more than 11,000 people. The most common contamination problem today involves the germs in the hen's ovaries, which are transferred into the egg.

To protect yourself, shop for eggs from local farmers you trust instead of huge factory farm chicken houses, where disease spreads much faster. And always cook eggs thoroughly to kill pathogens. Keep egg salad and other egg-containing picnic food cold when serving.

Healthy Recipe: Scrambled Eggs with Pasta and Cherry Tomatoes

1. Leafy Greens—Iceberg, romaine, leaf, butter, and baby leaf lettuces, along with escarole, endive, spring mix, spinach, cabbage, kale, arugula, or chard, fit into the leafy green category, one that accounts for nearly 25 percent of all tainted food outbreaks. In 2006, bagged spinach contaminated with an especially virulent pathogen, E. coli O157:H7, caused several deaths and hundreds of illnesses. According to the report, outbreaks from leafy greens may arise from production or processing, poor worker hygiene, cross-contamination of cutting boards or other equipment, or contaminated water or manure. While a hypothesis that wild animals were responsible for contaminating plants (the pathogens can actually survive inside the plant, so you can't always wash it off) surfaced, preliminary research out of California's Department of Fish and Game and University of California, Davis, and the United States Department of Agriculture found that isn't the likely cause. "The small number of positive animals suggests the risk for produce contamination by wildlife is probably low, and following good agricultural practices should minimize the public health risk," says Robert Mandrell, the principle investigator of the study and team leader of the Produce Microbiology and Safety Research Unit, U.C. Davis. Unfortunately, misconceptions about the role of animals in E. coli contamination is resulting farmers being pressured remove wildlife corridors and plantings. That means fewer beneficial insects are attracted to the farms, and increases the farmers' dependence on chemical pesticides.

You can grow your own lettuce almost year-round with a cold frame, or find a local farmer who does through Localharvest.org.

Healthy Recipe: Greek Village Salad with Feta