What Are the Riskiest Food-Bacteria Combos?

Report Says Poultry With Campylobacter Bacteria Sickens Thousands Each Year

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on April 28, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

April 28, 2011 -- Poultry contaminated with campylobacter bacteria is the leading cause of food-borne illness in the U.S, according to a new report that ranks the top 10 riskiest food-bacteria combinations.

Poultry with campylobacter bacteria sickens more than 600,000 people a year, leading to costs of about of $1.3 billion, according to the report by University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute in Gainesville.

Next up on the list is toxoplasma in pork, followed by listeria in deli meats, salmonella in poultry, and listeria in dairy products. Salmonella actually appears four times on the list in combination with produce, eggs, and complex foods in addition to poultry.

Taken together, the top 10 riskiest combinations cost more than $8 billion in medical care, sick days, and care for any lasting complications each year.

Most people think of food-borne illness as causing gastrointestinal upset such as diarrhea and vomiting, but these combinations can sometimes cause more severe symptoms. For example, campylobacter bacteria can infrequently also cause paralysis and neuromuscular problems, and E. coli O157:H7 can sometimes lead to severe kidney damage. This strain of E. coli is usually found in contaminated beef or produce.

“There are pathogens in food, but I don’t think it as an epidemic,” says study author Michael Batz, head of the food safety program of the University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute. “The vast majority of meals don’t lead to illness, so danger is not lurking in every corner. But there is a real risk and it is one we can do something about it.”

“Food-borne illness is essentially preventable,” he says.

Special Caution for High-Risk Groups

“The young, old, pregnant, and people who have chronic illness are certainly at higher risk,” he says.

Pregnant women, for example, are extremely susceptible to listeria in deli meats and soft cheeses and toxoplasma found in pork and beef. “The rates of pregnant women who are aware of this risk are low,” he says. “The new report should serve to remind pregnant women to avoid deli meats and soft cheeses.”

Phillip Tierno, PhD, director of clinical microbiology and diagnostic immunology at the New York University Langone Medical Center, agrees that food-borne illnesses are largely preventable.

Toxoplasma gondii, which appears on the list, is usually associated with cat litter but can also be found in raw or undercooked meat. “You don’t have to eat raw meat,” he says. “On a personal level, the most important thing you can do is cook your food. Cooking and heat can kill many pathogens.”

Food handling is also an important way to protect yourself from food-borne illness, Tierno says. “Even after you tell people be careful of cross contamination, they don’t do it. To effectively clean up, you need a good disinfecting solution and you should not mix meat and vegetable cutting boards.”

Also, toss uneaten cold cuts after a few days. “Listeria loves the cold,” he says.

While seafood does not make the new list, sushi is risky business, Tierno says.

“It is not mentioned here because more people get ill with salmonella from eggs and chicken carcasses,” he says. But “a good sushi man can protect against parasites, but he can’t eliminate the bacteria, so cooking is important.”

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Michael Batz, head, food safety program, University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute, Gainesville.

Phillip Tierno, PhD, director, clinical microbiology and diagnostic immunology, New York University Langone Medical Center.

Emerging Pathogens Institute, University of Florida, Gainesville: “Ranking the Risks: the 10 pathogen-food combinations with the greatest burden in public health.”

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