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Risky business: foods that can make you sick

I often gently suggest to friends and family that their “upset stomach” or “touch of diarrhea” is probably not a symptom of a cold or the influenza but a mild case of food poisoning.

Impossible, they say. They’re careful about where they eat, what foods they buy and how they cook them. No way they’d get food poisoning.

Yet, foodborne illnesses are rampant in the United States — an estimated 76 million cases a year, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

With a statistic that huge, how could any of us think we’re not included in it from time to time? After all, most cases of food poisoning go undiagnosed and unreported. The CDC has estimated, for example, that only one in 38 cases of salmonellosis is diagnosed and reported to health officials.

Riskiest foods
The issue of food safety — and foodborne illnesses — received a one-two punch this week. First, there was the New York Times terrific article on e-coli and commercially processed ground beef. (Has anybody who read that article eaten a hamburger since?)

Then came the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s report on the “Ten Riskiest Foods Regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.” (Full disclosure: I edited CSPI’s newsletter many years ago.)

You won’t find meat and poultry on the CSPI list because those foods are regulated (dismally, according to the New York Times article) by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The FDA is responsible, however, for all fruits and vegetables, dairy products, seafood and shell eggs, as well as packaged foods, such as peanut butter and cookie dough.

Most of us tend not to think of non-meat products as possible sources of food poisoning. Yet, as the authors of the CSPI report note, “A complex globalized food system, archaic food-safety laws, and the risk of large-scale production and processing have combined to create a perfect storm of unsafe food. Unfortunately, the hazards now come from all areas of the food supply: not only high-risk products, like meat and dairy, but also the must-eat components of a healthy diet, like fruits and vegetables.”

The ‘Top 10’
Here’s the list (in order of most reported outbreaks of illness). According to CSPI, these foods were responsible for 40 percent of all foodborne outbreaks linked to FDA-regulated foods since 1990.

1. Leafy greens
2. Eggs
3. Tuna
4. Oysters
5. Potatoes
6. Cheese
7. Ice cream
8. Tomatoes
9. Sprouts
10. Berries

CSPI is not telling you to avoid these foods. After all, the list includes some of the most healthful foods you can eat (leafy greens, tomatoes and berries). Instead, they urge you to support congressional legislation that would modernize food safety at the FDA.

You can download a PDF of the CSPI report here. They also have a “Food Outbreaks and Recall” website where you can find out what foods and food products have been recently recalled for causing illness outbreaks. Recalled products since last spring include products that may surprise you: certain brands of pistachios and ground pepper as well as ground beef and alfalfa sprouts.

Oh, and for my friends and family members who never believe me when I suggest their sudden-onset gastrointestinal problems might be food poisoning, here’s the Mayo Clinic’s list of symptoms.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 10/09/2009 - 12:29 pm.

    Keep up the great work!

    For me, the most noteworthy part of the NY Times article is this:

    “Dr. Kenneth Petersen, an assistant administrator with the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said that the department could mandate testing, but that it needed to consider the impact on companies as well as consumers. “I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health,” Dr. Petersen said.”

    You have to appreciate this man’s candor, but the policy he states is in direct contradiction to his department’s role in protecting the public health.

    Shouldn’t the USDA’s policy of promoting agricultural products and producers be isolated from the Food Safety and Inspection Service? To find out, I looked up that specific department’s mission statement from its web site, and here it is:

    “Our Mission: The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is the public health agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged.”

    I can’t find anywhere in that mission statement Dr. Peterson’s part-time job of worrying on behalf of the producers.

    Maybe this department should change its publicly stated mission statement to something more truthful and accurate, something like this:

    “Our Mission: The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is the public health agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged – BUT ONLY INSOFAR AS IT’S NOT TOO TROUBLESOME FOR THE PRODUCERS.”

  2. Submitted by Rebecca Hoover on 10/09/2009 - 06:40 pm.

    Great article! Thanks for writing it. At the rate things are going, our favorite dream will soon be cleaner and healthier food.

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