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What are the Least Safe Foods From a Contamination Perspective?

Deaths from tainted food outbreaks over the past year have many consumers worried about the safety of our food supply. Each year, food-borne illnesses result in 5,000 deaths and 76 million cases of illness in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

food safety

That hamburger could contain meat from hundreds of animals, which greatly increases the risk of contamination.

Specifically, outbreaks of illness have occurred in the last 12 months from contaminated spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, peanut butter, and, most recently, pet food. As a result, wary Americans have resorted to changing their buying habits, according to the US Grocery Shopper Trends 2007 report prepared by the Food Marketing Institute.

The report found that only 66 percent of shoppers are confident that the food they buy at the grocery store is safe, down from 82 percent in 2006. And, 38 percent of consumers have stopped buying certain fresh produce and meat items, up from just 9 percent in 2006.

The items cited as most offensive were spinach (71 percent have not purchased it because of contamination concerns), lettuce (16 percent), bagged salad (9 percent) and beef (8 percent).

Meanwhile, the CDC says that certain food-borne infections have, indeed, been on the rise since 2004; namely E. coli infections, which have increased 50 percent, and Vibrio infections from eating raw shellfish, which have increased a whopping 78 percent in the last decade.

Which Foods are Most Likely to be Contaminated?

It's certainly understandable that Americans are being more cautious about their food nowadays, but are our fears surrounding spinach, lettuce and other foods justified? Or are there other, truly scary, foods that we should be looking out for?

Of course, any food has the potential to be contaminated, while even risky foods are sometimes safe. Here we've compiled the foods that tend to be the least safe from a contamination perspective, and justly deserve to be consumed with an air of caution.

1. Clams, Oysters and Mussels

These shellfish are "filter-feeders," which means that they strain microbes from the sea for many months. If they live in less-than-pristine environments with pollution (which, sadly, is often the case), they can absorb contaminants from seawater and transfer them to you. There is an even higher risk if the shellfish is eaten raw.

2. Ground Beef

"A single hamburger may contain meat from hundreds of animals," according to the CDC. Because so many products have been mingled together, the risk of contamination is higher than eating meat from just one animal. For instance, if any one animal out of the hundreds that were added to a large batch of ground beef is contaminated, the whole batch becomes contaminated.

food safety

It seems harmless, but if your French toast is coated with eggs from a huge batch, it could be risky.

3. Pooled Eggs

Similar to ground beef, when eggs are cooked in large batches in restaurants the risk of contamination is higher than if you just consumed one or two eggs. Large batches of any type of egg -- from eggs benedict to scrambled (and even French toast) -- could be risky.

4. Chicken (Raw or Undercooked)

A Consumer Reports study that tested 484 fresh, whole broiler chickens found that about half of them contained the pathogenic bacteria salmonella or campylobacter. Further, 90 percent of the campylobacter bacteria and 34 percent of the salmonella showed some resistance to antibiotics, which means people sickened by these bugs may have a hard time getting rid of them.

Meanwhile, "a broiler chicken carcass can be exposed to the drippings and juices of many thousands of other birds that went through the same cold water tank after slaughter," according to the CDC.

The risk comes from eating raw or undercooked chicken and from cross-contamination (raw chicken juices dripping onto vegetables, or using a plate from raw chicken to serve cooked foods, etc.).

5. Fruits and Vegetables (Raw)

Because so many fruits and vegetables are consumed raw, they do pose a contamination risk. Toxins can come from the water used to wash the produce, from fertilizers, or from a food worker's dirty hands. Choosing fruits and vegetables from locally grown sources (that therefore do not have to pass through as many avenues of potential contamination), peeling them (if possible) and washing them before you eat them can help to reduce the risk.

Recommended Reading

What is REALLY in a Hot Dog? And How Unhealthy Are They?

Does Early Exposure to Food Allergens Increase Tolerance to Them?


U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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