If all the produce-related food recalls this summer have you giving your local grocery store salad bar the side eye, that’s completely fair. But, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are plenty of other foods you should be more concerned about.
A new surveillance report released by the CDC analyzed the causes of foodborne disease outbreaks between 2009 and 2015.
The researchers found 5,760 outbreaks that caused 100,939 illnesses, 5,699 hospitalizations, and 145 deaths in the U.S. during that time. All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico reported outbreaks. (An outbreak is defined as two or more cases of a similar illness that happens after people eat a common food, the CDC says. So if you get sick after leaving your plate of potato salad out in the heat for too long, it doesn’t qualify.)
The foods that were most often implicated in outbreaks were:
- Fish (17 percent of all outbreaks)
- Dairy (11 percent of all outbreaks)
- Chicken (10 percent of all outbreaks)
But some foods were more likely to cause outbreak-related illnesses. Those were:
- Chicken (12 percent of cases)
- Pork (10 percent of cases)
- Seeded vegetables (10 percent of cases)
Some foodborne illnesses are more worrying than others. But the most common one isn't usually serious.
The researchers also found that norovirus was responsible for 38 percent of the outbreaks, salmonella was responsible for another 30 percent, and shiga toxin-producing escherichia coli (STEC) was implicated in 6 percent. Other causes (including campylobacter, clostridium perfringens, scombroid toxin, ciguatoxin, staphylococcus aureus, vibrio parahaemolyticus, and listeria monocytogenes) were all responsible for 5 percent or fewer outbreaks.
As SELF wrote previously, norovirus is a contagious illness that affects the gastrointestinal tract and tends to cause classic food poisoning symptoms, like vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea that lasts for about three days. Although it's common (especially in confined spaces like cruise ships), most healthy adults are able to recover from a norovirus infection without extensive treatment—they just need to stay hydrated and get some quality rest.
When it comes to the bacteria most likely to cause serious illnesses (including hospitalizations, deaths, outbreak-associated illnesses), the top offenders were listeria, salmonella, and STEC. In fact, salmonella and listeria have been finding their way into many foods that weren’t considered a risk in the past, like cereal, crackers, and peanuts, which is especially concerning, Darin Detwiler, Ph.D., director of the Regulatory Affairs of Food and Food Industries program at Northeastern University, tells SELF.
In most healthy adults, many foodborne illnesses will be uncomfortable but temporary annoyances. However, for those who have other health issues, they can be incredibly serious and even deadly. Those who are most susceptible are people who are immunocompromised, including people with HIV, those who are undergoing chemotherapy, very young children whose immune systems haven’t developed yet, pregnant women, and elderly people, food safety expert Felicia Wu, Ph.D., a professor at Michigan State University, tells SELF.
You shouldn’t panic over this report, but there are a few things to keep in mind.
Interestingly, the CDC report revealed that, in cases where health officials could actually pinpoint an original source of an outbreak, 61 percent of the outbreaks were traced back to restaurants, while only 12 percent started in private homes. Among those restaurants, sit-down dining style restaurants were the most commonly reported type of restaurant behind an outbreak, followed by catering or banquet halls, and schools. The places with the largest number of illnesses per outbreak were schools, while restaurants had the smallest number of illnesses per outbreak.
"The findings highlight the continued need for compliance with guidelines that exclude ill and recovering food workers, prohibit bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat foods, and ensure appropriate hand washing," lead study author Daniel Dewey-Mattia, M.P.H., an epidemiologist with the CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases, tells SELF.
“When we prepare food at home, we have much more control over the food’s safety,” Wu says. Based on the results of the report, preparing your own food at home really could lower your risk of contracting a foodborne illness, she says. When it comes to preparing your foods at home, using good food safety practices like washing your hands before preparing food, cooking foods to a safe internal temperature, and separating raw meats and poultry from ready-to-eat foods like fruits and veggies can make a big difference, Dewey-Mattia says.
So, you don't need to worry too much about foodborne illnesses, but you can be smart about avoiding them. “Just as we say to our children to look both ways before crossing the street every time…we need to start talking about food safety as if it is something we need to prioritize every time,” Detwiler says. “Nobody is immune.”