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Food Safety: Top 10 Riskiest Foods

By Melanie Rauch, JD | Last updated on

Navigating the maze of food safety can be daunting, especially when considering the foods that have historically posed the highest risk for foodborne illnesses. Staying up-to-date can be hard, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), consumer reports and food safety experts often warn about ten types of foods that have been linked to outbreaks of pathogens like E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria. Here's a rundown of the top ten riskiest foods to eat, aimed at helping consumers make informed choices while maintaining a healthy diet.

  1. Leafy Greens: leafy greens such as romaine lettuce, spinach, and kale are staples in a health-conscious diet but have been linked to E. coli and Salmonella outbreaks. Contaminated irrigation water is often the culprit. Food safety experts recommend thoroughly washing all leafy greens and considering growing conditions when purchasing.
  2. Ground Beef: ground beef can harbor E. coli and Salmonella, especially when not cooked to the proper internal temperature. The USDA recommends using a meat thermometer to ensure ground meat reaches at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit to kill harmful pathogens.
  3. Deli Meats: deli meats, including salami, cold cuts, and brie-covered selections like queso fresco, are high-risk foods for Listeria contamination. Listeria can thrive in the refrigerated environment of deli counters, making proper handling and storage essential.
  4. Raw Milk and Soft Cheese: raw milk and soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk can carry Listeria, E. coli and Salmonella. Food safety experts advise consumers, especially those with weakened immune systems, to opt for pasteurized products.
  5. Eggs: raw eggs are well known for their risk of Salmonella. While most people think of raw cookie dough as a risk, dishes that use undercooked eggs, such as certain sauces and homemade ice cream, also pose a threat. Cooking eggs until the yolks are firm is a recommended precaution.
  6. Papayas: recent outbreaks have revealed that papayas can be a source of Salmonella infection. Cross contamination and contaminated irrigation water have been identified as risks, highlighting the need for thorough washing before consumption.
  7. Melons: watermelon, whole cantaloupes, and other melons have been associated with Salmonella and Listeria outbreaks. Their rough skin can trap bacteria, which is transferred to the fruit's flesh when cut. Thoroughly washing the outer surface before slicing in advised.
  8. Sprouts: sprouts, including alfalfa and bean sprouts, are grown in warm, moist conditions that are ideal for bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella. Cooking sprouts can reduce the risk of foodborne illness.
  9. Pre-cut Fruits and Vegetables: the convenience of pre-cut fruits and vegetables comes with an increased risk for contamination. The additional handling and exposed surfaces make these products more susceptible to pathogens. Refrigerating these products promptly and choosing them from reputable sources can mitigate some risks.
  10. Raw Seafood and Shellfish: raw seafood, including sushi and oysters, can harbor Vibrio bacteria, along with Salmonella and Listeria. Eating cooked seafood is the safest option, especially for those with compromised immune systems.

Understanding the risks associated with these foods doesn't mean you have to eliminate them from your diet. Instead, it's about making safer choices through proper handling, storage, and cooking. By following guidelines set by the FDA and CDC and using tools like food thermometers and cutting boards wisely to prevent cross-contamination, consumers can enjoy a wide variety of foods safely.

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