7 Foods Most Likely to Cause Food Poisoning

Ever had a tummy upset a few hours after eating? Foodborne illness, otherwise known as food poisoning, happens once we consume food contaminated with bacteria, parasites, or other microorganisms we don’t want on our plates. There are many external factors that can contaminate our food — improper food storage or poor food handler hygiene, just to name a few — but some types of food are more susceptible than others.

Key takeaways:

In this article, we examine the top 7 most common foods that cause food poisoning and what you can do to help prevent it. Most of us have had food poisoning at least once in our lives. A few hours after a meal, you may experience stomach pains, vomiting, or even diarrhea. It’s a common but still painful experience for us all.

Each year, about 1 in 6 Americans get sick from tainted foods. Foodborne diseases kill about 3,000 people nationwide each year. Infants, older people, and those with compromised immune systems are especially at risk.

National Institutes of Health

In many mild cases, with rest and fluids, the body can heal itself. However, for moderate to severe cases, you may have had to seek medical attention. To save you from this painful experience, let’s explore the top 7 most common foods that can cause food poisoning and what you can do to help prevent it from happening again.

1. Poultry

Undercooked or raw poultry is a common culprit of food poisoning.

The 3 most common pathogens responsible for poultry-related food poisoning are Campylobacter, Salmonella, and Clostridium perfringens, as they are common in the GI tract and feathers.

During the slaughtering process, these microbes can contaminate the meat and, believe it or not, survive until cooking. Although these harmful bacteria can live on raw poultry, they die off at certain temperatures. Be sure to cook chicken, turkey, duck, and other poultry to an internal temperature of at least 165 F (74 C) to prevent food poisoning.

Some easy ways to reduce your risk of food poisoning from poultry include:

  • Cook poultry thoroughly (at least 165 F or 74 C).
  • Do not wash raw meat to prevent splashing or spraying of these harmful bacteria on kitchen surfaces. If you do feel the need to wash your poultry, make sure to thoroughly cleanse areas that come in contact with the raw poultry or water that has touched/splashed from the raw poultry.
  • Prevent cross-contamination by thoroughly washing utensils, surfaces, cutting boards, or other foods that come in contact with raw poultry.

2. Seafood and shellfish

Unlike poultry, some toxins from certain seafood and shellfish cannot be destroyed by cooking and often pose a greater risk for food poisoning. Seafood, including shellfish, is associated with food poisoning due to many different contaminants.

The most common causes include:

Bacterial contamination. Vibrio species of bacteria and Salmonella are commonly associated with seafood-related infections and can be present in both raw and cooked seafood. Campylobacter can be found in contaminated water and can also negatively affect seafood.

Viral infections. Norovirus is highly contagious and can be transmitted through contaminated water, contact with infected food handlers, or poor hygiene in food preparers. Hepatitis A can be transmitted from shellfish, particularly oysters, cockles, and clams if they’re harvested from contaminated waters.

Toxins. Some species of algae produce toxins that accumulate in shellfish, such as mussels, clams, and oysters. This can lead to paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP), caused by saxitoxin; amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP), caused by domoic acid; diarrhetic shellfish poisoning (DSP), caused by okadaic acid; and neurotoxic shellfish poisoning (NSP), caused by brevotoxins. Harmful algal blooms are often the culprits of these forms of shellfish poisoning. The ciguatera toxin, most common in warm, tropical waters, can be found in certain reef fish and cause ciguatera fish poisoning (CFP).

To reduce the risk of seafood-related food poisoning, it's important to practice safe food handling, cook seafood thoroughly at at least 145 F (63 C), and be aware of potential contaminants in specific types of seafood. Also, buying seafood from quality sources with high food safety standards and practices is crucial to prevent seafood-related food poisoning.

Here are some specific things to pay attention to when buying seafood:

  • Only buy refrigerated or very cold fish (on a bed of ice, for example) and ideally under some covering (i.e., not exposed).
  • Fish should not smell sour, odd, or like ammonia.
  • The eyes of fish should be clear and shiny.
  • All fish should have firm flesh and spring back when you press it.
  • Some seafood like lobster, shrimp, and scallops should be clear or a light pearl color with no odor.
  • Previously frozen seafood may not have the markings of fresh seafood (like clear eyes or firm flesh); however, they should not smell sour or rancid.
  • Store and keep all seafood in cold temperatures of 40 F (4 C) or below.

Seafood can be a common source of food poisoning due to the presence of bacteria, viruses, and certain toxins. To reduce your risk, stick with the tips we covered above and be sure to handle and cook your seafood properly.

3. Unpasteurized dairy

When dairy is pasteurized, it is heated to specific temperatures for specific periods of time to kill harmful microorganisms. Examples would be heating dairy to 145 F for at least 30 minutes all the way through 280 F for 2 seconds.

Pasteurizing dairy products (like cheese and milk) makes them safe to consume and helps prevent food poisoning. Campylobacter, Brucella, Cryptosporidium, E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria can all be killed via pasteurization. Believe it or not, pasteurization is believed to be so important that 21 out of the 50 states have made it illegal to sell unpasteurized dairy for human consumption. This is due to the significantly increased risk of raw dairy causing food poisoning. It’s estimated that unpasteurized milk is up to 150 times more likely to cause some level of food poisoning and a much higher risk of hospitalization.

To limit your risk of dairy-related food poisoning, make sure to purchase pasteurized dairy and store it at temperatures under 40 F (4–5 C) and never consume dairy past its 'best before' date.

4. Produce: leafy greens, sprouts, fruits, and vegetables

Leafy greens can be a common source of food poisoning, specifically kale, lettuce, spinach, sprouts, and cabbage. Other vegetables known to cause food poisoning are tomatoes and celery. Lastly, melons (like cantaloupe and watermelon) can be susceptible to Listeria, which often grows on the rind and can get into the flesh. E. coli, norovirus, Cyclospora, Listeria, and Salmonella are the most common culprits in vegetable and leafy green food poisoning cases due to soil and water contamination.

Outside of water and soil contamination, dirty harvesting and processing equipment and lack of hygiene in food handlers are also common causes. As we previously learned, heating foods to specific temperatures can kill these microbes, but because greens and vegetables are often eaten raw, they pose a greater risk of causing food poisoning.

To minimize the risk of food poisoning from leafy greens, always wash them thoroughly (you can also add vinegar to the water) or purchase products with labels like 'ready to eat,' 'triple washed,' or 'no washing necessary,' as these are often safer to consume. Store leafy greens and veggies at 40 F or below, avoid eating bruised or damaged leaves, and be sure to remove the outer layers of cabbage and the head of the lettuce.

In terms of fruits and other vegetables, be sure to wash them thoroughly before consuming them. You can add one-fourth of vinegar to a sink full of water or use a specialized fruit/veggie wash to help ensure your produce is clean before eating. Doing these things can help you avoid food poisoning from fruits, veggies, and leafy greens.

5. Rice

This is one, not many people know — uncooked rice. Rice can be contaminated with Bacillus cereus, which can cause food poisoning. The spores from Bacillus cereus can live in dry or damp climates and survive processing, packaging, and even cooking processes, especially when cooked rice is left standing at room temperature.

To prevent your risk of food poisoning from rice, it’s best to eat it as soon as it is cooked and then refrigerate it as soon as possible after cooking. Eating reheated rice is fine as long as it is steaming after the reheating process.

6. Highly processed meats

There are many stages of processing, manufacturing, and preservation of certain meats that make them more likely to cause food poisoning. Highly processed meats like sausage, hot dogs, bacon, cured meats, and deli meats (like salami and ham) can often become contaminated with harmful microbes like Staphylococcus aureus and Listeria — known pathogens that cause food poisoning.

Contamination often occurs during manufacturing or processing or from poor hygiene of handlers and cross-contamination from dirty deli equipment. A study in the Journal of Food Protection found that 83% of deaths associated with Listeria-contaminated deli meats were actually from sliced and packaged meats at deli counters, and 17% were from pre-packaged meat products.

Make sure to properly cook and immediately consume processed meats to prevent food poisoning. Sliced processed meats should not be left at room temperatures and should instead be stored at 40 F (4–5 C) or below until it’s time to eat them.

7. Eggs

Eggs have the potential to carry Salmonella both on the shell and inside. This was a much more common problem prior to the 1990s, but processing and production improvements have since led to fewer Salmonella outbreaks. Outside of processing and production, food poisoning related to egg consumption is most often due to undercooked eggs or cross-contamination of raw eggs on utensils and cooking surfaces.

To prevent egg-related food poisoning, do not consume unwashed eggshells and, when possible, opt for pasteurized eggs when using eggs in recipes that might call for eggs that will be consumed raw. Also, be sure to cook eggs completely and consume immediately after cooking or store them in the refrigerator at 40 F or below.

Food poisoning is very common and can be easily prevented with the right food storage, preparation, and hygienic handling. Poultry, seafood, unpasteurized dairy, leafy greens/vegetables, eggs, and rice carry a higher risk of food poisoning, and special attention should be paid when handling these foods. Follow the tips we cover in this article to limit your risk of food poisoning and ensure you feel great after eating your favorite meals.

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