7 Foods Most Likely to Make You Sick

Every day, more than 130,000 Americans are stricken with food poisoning. While the rates of some common food-borne bugs have declined, cases of Salmonella—the most common infection and leading cause of both hospitalization and death from food-borne illness—have risen by 10 percent since 2006, according to a new food safety report issued by the CDC on June 7. About 1.2 million Americans suffer bouts of Salmonella each year.

“The bottom line is that food-borne illness, particularly salmonella, is still far too common,” said CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden. One reason is that it can taint a wide range of foods, including meat, eggs, poultry, vegetables and nuts. One detail of the report highlights just how entrenched the pathogen is: New US standards to take effect next month call for “allowable contamination” of chicken at processing plants to be reduced to 7.5 percent from the current rate of 20 percent—hardly an assurance of safety. Here’s a look at seven of the riskiest foods for triggering serious health problems.

Find out where Salmonella and other germs lurk in your home.

1.  Leafy Greens: Greens like lettuce, escarole, endive, spinach, cabbage, kale, arugula and chard top a list compiled by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) of the riskiest foods regulated by the FDA. 

  • Culprits: E. coli, Norovirus and Salmonella.
  • The problem: Contamination can occur at the farm through contact with wild animals, manure, contaminated water or unsanitary harvesting, or at home through inadequate hand washing or unsanitary preparation. At least 363 outbreaks of food-borne illness are linked to leafy greens.
  • Prevention: Wash raw vegetables thoroughly and avoid preparing them near raw chicken or meat. You may want to avoid packaged salad mixes, since combining vegetables from multiple sources could increases the risk of a contaminated ingredient finding its way into the mix.

2.  Eggs: Eggs and egg products have been blamed for more than 350 outbreaks of food poisoning. Last year they sickened more than 50,000 Americans, leading to the recall of a half-billion eggs.  

  • Culprits: Salmonella. The most common strain infects the ovaries of hens, contaminating eggs before the shell is formed.
  • The problem: Serving raw or runny eggs or leaving eggs at improper temperatures at buffets.
  • Prevention: Thorough cooking kills most pathogens.

Follow these tips to keep your food clean and healthy.

3.  Hot Dogs: OK, you wouldn’t consider them a health food, but you may not know that hot dogs are hazardous to young kids.

  • The problem: Hot dogs have been blamed for food-related asphyxiations in kids under age 10. Every five days a young child dies as a result of choking on food.
  • Prevention: Cut hot dogs into half-inch chunks for kids under age four, then slice chunks in half. Cut grapes in half too. The American Academy of Pediatrics has a new report on choking prevention.

4.  Tuna: Mercury isn’t the only hazard. A naturally occurring toxin—a histamine-like chemical—can trigger a syndrome similar to an allergic reaction. Affected fish may have a peppery, bitter or metallic flavor.

  • Culprit: Scombrotoxin forms when certain fish—typically large, meaty varieties such as tuna and mahi mahi--are inadequately refrigerated.
  • The problem: Once formed, the toxin can’t be destroyed by cooking, freezing, smoking, curing or canning. Symptoms include skin flushing, headaches, abdominal cramps, nausea, diarrhea, and palpitations. Antihistamines may reduce symptoms, which usually clear up within a day. 
  • Prevention: The problem can be prevented if fish is kept chilled from capture to cooking. Don’t eat fish with an off flavor.

5. Peanuts: In moderation, peanuts can be nutritious as they contain heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. However, they can be dangerous or deadly to about one percent of the population.

  • Culprit: An allergy that’s on the rise among children. Peanuts are the leading cause of food-allergy deaths.
  • The problem: The immune system of those with the allergy mistakenly identifies peanut proteins as a threat to health, triggering symptoms ranging from mild to deadly.
  • Prevention: People with severe peanut allergies should carry an EpiPen for immediate treatment of reactions and scrutinize food labels carefully.

6.  Potatoes: Outbreaks of illness are linked to potato salad.

  • Culprits: Salmonella, Shingella, Listeria or E. coli bacteria can get into potato dishes via cross contamination from raw-to-cooked ingredients during handling and preparation.
  • The problem: Shigella is transmitted easily from an infected person to food. Listeria can live on deli counters and kitchens. More than 40 percent of potato-related illnesses are triggered by prepared foods from restaurants, groceries and delis.
  • Prevention: Avoid letting potato salad sit at room temperature for long periods.

7.  Ice Cream: The largest ice-cream outbreak ever occurred in 1994 when a manufacturer transported raw eggs and pasteurized ice cream premix in the same truck.

  • Culprits: Salmonella and Listeria.
  • The problem: Almost half of all-ice cream outbreaks occur in private homes, probably due to Salmonella from undercooked eggs in homemade ice cream. Listeria can live inside of soft ice cream machines and contaminate multiple batches. Other dairy products can also harbor Listeria.
  • Prevention The CDC advises pregnant women to avoid soft cheeses like feta, Brie and Camembert. Salmonella can be killed by pasteurization. Also be cautious about eating soft or homemade ice cream.

Explore these new methods to prevent food contamination.

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