"The most surprising things on the list are not so surprising when you look closely at the explanations and qualifications in the report," said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives for Consumers Union.The FDA is responsible for regulating produce, seafood, egg and dairy products -- but not meat or poultry -- that comprise nearly 80 percent of the food supply. The CSPI report noted that more than 1,500 separate, definable foodborne illness outbreaks were associated with the 10 foods on the list, causing nearly 50,000 reported illnesses. Since most foodborne illnesses go unreported, that number represents only a fraction of cases.
Here are the top 10 offending foods and excerpts from sections of the report that detail why these foods made the list:
1) Leafy greens (363 outbreaks, 13,568 reported cases of illness)
Outbreaks from leafy greens occur anywhere these popular food items are consumed. Contamination may be present from production and processing, or may occur through improper handling and preparation, such as inadequate handwashing and cross-contamination of cutting boards and other equipment. A major outbreak occurred in bagged spinach in 2006. In restaurants, any of these problems in only a single food item can affect multiple patrons.
2) Eggs (352 outbreaks, 11,163 reported cases of illness)
Eggs can contain salmonella. Half of all egg outbreaks occurred from restaurants and other food establishments. While proper egg handling and cooking should destroy most pathogens, serving eggs raw or “runny,” or leaving egg dishes at improper holding temperatures (such as on a breakfast buffet) can allow the bacteria to multiply.
3) Tuna ( 268 outbreaks, 2341 reported cases of illness)
Fresh fish decay quickly after being caught and, if stored above 60 degrees F, begin to release natural toxins that are dangerous for humans. Adequate refrigeration and handling can slow this spoilage, but the toxin cannot be destroyed by cooking, freezing, smoking, curing, or canning.
4) Oysters (132 outbreaks, 3409 reported cases of illness)
Illnesses from oysters occur primarily from two sources: Norovirus and Vibrio. Although Norovirus in other foods is usually associated with improper handling during harvest or preparation, oysters can actually be harvested from waters contaminated with Norovirus. When served raw or undercooked, those oysters can cause gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the stomach and small or large intestines.
5) Potatoes (108 outbreaks, 3659 reported cases of illness)
Potatoes are grown in the soil, but they are always cooked before consuming. Outbreaks are linked to dishes, like potato salad, that can contain many ingredients and also a broad range of pathogens. More than 40 percent of potato outbreaks were linked to foods prepared in restaurants and food establishments (including grocery stores and delis).
6) Cheese (83 outbreaks, 2761 reported cases of illness)
Cheese can become contaminated with pathogens during the initial phases of production (curdling, molding, and salting), or later during processing. This summer California health officials warned consumers about eating Latin American-style cheeses such as queso fresco made with unpasteurized milk that may contain bacteria.
7) Ice cream (74 outbreaks, 2594 reported cases of illness)
Almost half of all ice-cream outbreaks contained in CSPI’s database occurred in private homes. This is most likely due to the use of undercooked eggs in homemade ice cream.
8) Tomatoes (31 outbreaks, 3292 reported cases of illness)
Salmonella can enter tomato plants through roots or flowers and can enter the tomato fruit through small cracks in the skin, the stem scar, or the plant itself. Once inside, destruction of salmonella without cooking the tomato is very difficult. Norovirus was the second most common hazard. Restaurants were responsible for 70 percent of all illnesses associated with tomatoes.
9) Sprouts (31 outbreaks, 2022 reported cases of illness)
The most likely source of sprout contamination is the seeds that are used to grow the sprouts. Seeds may become contaminated in the field or during storage, and the warm and humid conditions required to grow sprouts are ideal for the rapid growth of bacteria. Improper handling and poor hygiene in sprout production have also caused some sprout-related outbreaks.
10) Berries (25 outbreaks, 3397 reported cases of illness)
Most of the berry-related illnesses were caused by Cyclospora. The resulting infection is a parasitic illness of the intestines, which can cause severe diarrhea, dehydration, and stomach cramps. Importantly, the illness does not resolve itself without antibiotics, thus requiring a trip to the doctor.
Our take: This Top 10 list underscores the need for food safety reform. The House passed the Food Safety Enhancement Act in July. We'd like to see the Senate follow its lead and take stronger measures to protect the nation's food supply.