What Foods Most Commonly Cause Food Poisoning?

Food poisoning, also known as food-borne illness, is a very common infectious condition that sickens an estimated 48 million Americans each year. More than 250 different types of food-related illnesses have been identified, and they are caused by a wide variety of viruses, bacteria, and parasites. E. coli, salmonella, and campylobacter are some of the most common culprits that cause foodborne illness. Pregnant women, elderly individuals, children, and people with compromised immune systems are at an increased risk of food poisoning compared to the general population. Symptoms usually start within hours of eating a contaminated food and can include:

  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • abdominal cramping
  • nausea
  • fever 

Treating Food Poisoning

While the majority of cases are not severe enough to need medical attention and resolve on their own in one to three days, some cases may be life-threatening. Medical care should be sought if a patient has trouble keeping down liquids, has a fever above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, or experiences blurred vision or signs of dehydration. Approximately 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths occur due to food poisoning each year in the United States. Proper food handling and storage techniques can reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses. Some of the most frequently contaminated foods associated with this condition are listed below.

1 - Fresh Vegetables

Within the past year, there have been two major outbreaks of foodborne illness across the U.S., both of which were traced to E. coli bacteria found on romaine lettuce. Other outbreaks have been linked to cabbage, kale, tomatoes, spinach, and celery. To reduce the risk of food poisoning, try to avoid eating these vegetables raw, and wash all vegetables prior to eating. Avoid eating raw salads that have sat out at room temperature for several hours, and don't purchase greens that appear discolored or mushy.

2 - Eggs

Eggs and egg-based products such as mayonnaise have been linked to many outbreaks of salmonella. An estimated 79,000 cases of food poisoning are linked to eggs each year, and 30 deaths occur annually from contaminated egg products. These outbreaks commonly begin at summer picnics, where potato salads, coleslaw, and other dishes with mayonnaise have sat outside without refrigeration. When purchasing eggs, never buy any that are cracked or that have dirt on their shells. Opt for pasteurized eggs wherever possible, and thoroughly cook all eggs so that they are not runny.

3 - Poultry

Chicken, turkey, and other poultry sources are commonly contaminated with salmonella and campylobacter, both of which are naturally occurring bacteria in these animals. One study showed that up to 84 percent of American and British raw chicken was contaminated with campylobacter. This bacteria can only be destroyed with heat, and it is therefore crucial to cook poultry completely; there should be no pink in the middle. Do not rinse raw poultry before cooking it. If possible, use a separate chopping board and separate utensils for handling poultry to minimize the transmission of possible bacteria to other foods.

4 - Fish

Fish may carry toxins known as histamines that cannot be destroyed through cooking, and it is therefore crucial that any fish for human consumption is stored at a safe temperature. If histamine is ingested through fish, it can lead to scombroid poisoning. In addition to typical food poisoning symptoms, this type of poisoning includes wheezing and facial swelling, which can be serious. Fish that you catch yourself or that you purchase at outdoor markets may have a higher chance of histamine contamination. To decrease the likelihood of infection, always purchase seafood at grocery stores and refrigerate fish prior to cooking. Avoid consuming raw fish if at all possible.

5 - Unpasteurized Dairy

Milk, cheese, and other dairy products may contain a plethora of potentially harmful bacteria, including listeria, brucella, salmonella, E. coli, and cryptosporidium. While pasteurization kills these pathogens, unpasteurized dairy is legal in more than 20 U.S. states. Consuming raw milk or unpasteurized cheese increases the risk of contracting food poisoning more than 150 times compared to using pasteurized products. To reduce the risk of dairy-related foodborne illness, always choose pasteurized products and keep them refrigerated at no more than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Do not consume dairy past its listed expiration date.

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