Food poisoning happens when people consume food that is contaminated with harmful bacteria, parasites, viruses or toxins.
Also known as foodborne illness, it can cause a range of symptoms, most commonly stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and loss of appetite.
Pregnant women, young children, the elderly and people with chronic illnesses have a greater risk of becoming ill with food poisoning.
Certain foods are more likely to cause food poisoning than others, especially if they are improperly stored, prepared or cooked.
Here are the top 9 foods that are most likely to cause food poisoning.
Raw and undercooked poultry such as chicken, duck and turkey has a high risk of causing food poisoning.
This is mainly due to two types of bacteria, Campylobacter and Salmonella, which are commonly found in the guts and feathers of these birds.
The good news is that although these harmful bacteria can live on raw poultry, they’re completely eliminated when meat is cooked thoroughly.
To reduce your risk, ensure poultry meat is cooked through completely, do not wash raw meat and ensure that raw meat does not come in contact with utensils, kitchen surfaces, chopping boards and other foods, since this can result in cross-contamination (9).
Summary Raw and undercooked poultry is a common source of food poisoning. To reduce your risk, thoroughly cook chicken, duck and turkey meat. This will eliminate any harmful bacteria present.
Vegetables and leafy greens are a common source of food poisoning, especially when eaten raw.
Vegetables and leafy greens can become contaminated with harmful bacteria, such as E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria. This can occur across various stages of the supply chain.
Contamination can occur from unclean water and dirty runoff, which can leach into the soil that fruits and vegetables are grown in (11).
It can also occur from dirty processing equipment and unhygienic food preparation practices. Leafy greens are especially risky because they are often consumed raw (12).
In fact, between 1973 and 2012, 85% of the food poisoning outbreaks in the US that were caused by leafy greens such as cabbage, kale, lettuce and spinach were traced back to food prepared in a restaurant or catering facility (13).
To minimize your risk, always wash salad leaves thoroughly before eating. Do not purchase bags of salad mix that contain spoiled, mushy leaves and avoid pre-prepared salads that have been left to sit at room temperature.
Summary Vegetables and leafy greens can often carry harmful bacteria such as E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria. To reduce your risk, always wash vegetables and salad leaves and only purchase prepackaged salads that have been refrigerated.
Fish and shellfish are a common source of food poisoning.
Fish that has not been stored at the correct temperature has a high risk of being contaminated with histamine, a toxin produced by bacteria in fish.
Histamine is not destroyed by normal cooking temperatures and results in a type of food poisoning known as scombroid poisoning. It causes a range of symptoms including nausea, wheezing and swelling of the face and tongue (14, 15).
Another type of food poisoning caused by contaminated fish is ciguatera fish poisoning (CFP). This occurs due to a toxin called ciguatoxin, which is mostly found in warm, tropical waters.
At least 10,000–50,000 people who live in or visit tropical areas get CFP each year, according to estimates. Like histamine, it is not destroyed by normal cooking temperatures and therefore the harmful toxins are present after cooking (16).
Shellfish such as clams, mussels, oysters and scallops also carry a risk of food poisoning. Algae that are consumed by shellfish produce many toxins, and these can build up in the flesh of shellfish, posing danger to humans when they consume the shellfish (17).
Store-bought shellfish are usually safe to eat. However, shellfish caught from unmonitored areas may be unsafe due to contamination from sewage, stormwater drains and septic tanks.
To reduce your risk, purchase store-bought seafood and ensure you keep it chilled and refrigerated before cooking. Make sure fish is cooked through, and cook clams, mussels and oysters till the shells open. Throw away the shells that don’t open.
Summary Fish and shellfish are a common source of food poisoning due to the presence of histamine and toxins. To reduce your risk, stick with store-bought seafood and keep it chilled before use.
Rice is one of the oldest cereal grains and a staple food for more than half the world’s population. However, it is a high-risk food when it comes to food poisoning.
Uncooked rice can be contaminated with spores of Bacillus cereus, a bacterium that produces toxins that cause food poisoning.
These spores can live in dry conditions. For example, they can survive in a package of uncooked rice in your pantry. They can also survive the cooking process (18).
If cooked rice is left standing at room temperature, these spores grow into bacteria that thrive and multiply in the warm, moist environment. The longer rice is left standing at room temperature, the more likely it will be unsafe to eat (19).
To reduce your risk, serve rice as soon as it has been cooked and refrigerate leftover rice as quickly as possible after cooking. When reheating cooked rice, make sure it is steaming hot all the way through (19).
Summary Rice is a high-risk food due to Bacillus cereus. Spores of this bacterium can live in uncooked rice, and can grow and multiply once rice is cooked. To reduce your risk, eat rice as soon as it is cooked and refrigerate leftovers immediately.
Deli meats including ham, bacon, salami and hot dogs can be a source of food poisoning.
They can become contaminated with harmful bacteria including Listeria and Staphylococcus aureus at several stages during processing and manufacturing.
Contamination can occur directly through contact with contaminated raw meat or by poor hygiene by deli staff, poor cleaning practices and cross-contamination from unclean equipment such as slicer blades (20, 21).
Of all the deaths caused by Listeria-contaminated deli meats, 83% were caused by deli meat sliced and packaged at deli counters, while 17% were caused by pre-packaged deli meat products (26).
It is important to note that all meat carries a risk of food poisoning if it is not cooked or stored properly.
Hotdogs, minced meat, sausages and bacon should be cooked thoroughly and should be consumed immediately after being cooked. Sliced lunch meats should be stored in the refrigerator until they are ready to be eaten.
Summary Deli meats including ham, salami and hot dogs can be contaminated with bacteria that cause food poisoning. It is important to store deli meats in the refrigerator and cook meat thoroughly before eating.
Pasteurization is the process of heating a liquid or food to kill harmful microorganisms.
Food manufacturers pasteurize dairy products including milk and cheese to make them safe to consume. Pasteurization kills harmful bacteria and parasites such as Brucella, Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella.
In fact, sales of unpasteurized milk and milk products are illegal in 20 US states (27).
Between 1993 and 2006, there were more than 1,500 cases of food poisoning, 202 hospitalizations and two deaths in the US resulting from drinking milk or eating cheese made with unpasteurized milk (28).
Summary Pasteurization involves heating foods and liquids to kill harmful microorganisms such as bacteria. Unpasteurized dairy has been associated with a high risk of food poisoning.
While eggs are incredibly nutritious and versatile, they can also be a source of food poisoning when they’re consumed raw or undercooked.
This is because eggs can carry Salmonella bacteria, which can contaminate both the eggshell and the inside of the egg (32).
In the 1970s and 1980s, contaminated eggs were a major source of Salmonella poisoning in the US. The good news is that since 1990, improvements have been made in egg processing and production, which has led to fewer Salmonella outbreaks (33).
In spite of this, each year Salmonella-contaminated eggs cause about 79,000 cases of food poisoning and 30 deaths, according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (34).
To reduce your risk, do not consume eggs with a cracked or dirty shell. Where possible, choose pasteurized eggs in recipes that call for raw or lightly cooked eggs.
Summary Raw and undercooked eggs can carry Salmonella bacteria. Choose pasteurized eggs when possible and avoid eggs that have cracked or dirty shells.
A number of fruit products including berries, melons and pre-prepared fruit salads have been linked to food poisoning outbreaks.
Fruits grown on the ground such as cantaloupe (rockmelon), watermelon and honeydew melon have a high risk of causing food poisoning due to Listeria bacteria, which can grow on the rind and spread to the flesh (35).
Between 1973 and 2011, there were 34 reported outbreaks of food poisoning associated with melons in the US. This resulted in 3,602 reported cases of illness, 322 hospitalizations and 46 deaths.
Cantaloupes accounted for 56% of the outbreaks, watermelons accounted for 38% and honeydew melons accounted for 6% (36).
Cantaloupe is a particularly high-risk fruit due to its rough, netted skin, which provides protection for Listeria and other bacteria. This makes it difficult to completely remove bacteria, even with cleaning (37).
Fresh and frozen berries including raspberries, blackberries, strawberries and blueberries are also a common source of food poisoning due to harmful viruses and bacteria, particularly the hepatitis A virus.
The main causes of berry contamination include being grown in contaminated water, poor hygiene practices of berry pickers and cross-contamination with infected berries during processing (38).
Washing fruit before you eat it can reduce the risks, as can cooking it. If you’re eating melon, make sure to wash the rind. Eat fruit as soon as it’s cut or place it in the fridge. Avoid pre-packaged fruit salads that have not been chilled or stored in a fridge.
Summary Fruits carry a high risk of food poisoning, particularly melon and berries. Always wash fruit before eating and eat freshly cut fruit right away or store it in the fridge.
Raw sprouts of any kind, including alfalfa, sunflower, mung bean and clover sprouts, are considered to have a high risk of causing food poisoning.
This is mainly due to the presence of bacteria including Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria.
Seeds require warm, moist and nutrient-rich conditions for the sprouts to grow. These conditions are ideal for the rapid growth of bacteria.
From 1998 to 2010, 33 outbreaks from seed and bean sprouts were documented in the US, and were reported to have affected 1,330 people (39).
In 2014, beansprouts contaminated with Salmonella bacteria caused food poisoning in 115 people, a quarter of whom were hospitalized (40).
The FDA advises that pregnant women avoid consuming any type of raw sprouts. This is because pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to the effects of harmful bacteria (41).
Fortunately, cooking sprouts helps kill any harmful microorganisms and reduces the risk of food poisoning.
Summary Sprouts grow in moist, warm conditions and are an ideal environment for the growth of bacteria. Cooking sprouts can help reduce the risk of food poisoning.
Here are some simple tips to help minimize your risk of food poisoning:
- Practice good hygiene: Wash your hands with soap and hot water before preparing food. Always wash your hands right after touching raw meat and poultry.
- Avoid washing raw meat and poultry: This does not kill the bacteria — it only spreads it to other foods, cooking utensils and kitchen surfaces.
- Avoid cross-contamination: Use separate chopping boards and knives, especially for raw meat and poultry.
- Don’t ignore the use-by date: For health and safety reasons, foods should not be eaten after their use-by date. Check use-by dates on your food regularly and throw it out once they’ve passed, even if the food looks and smells ok.
- Cook meat thoroughly: Make sure ground meat, sausages and poultry are cooked through to the center. Juices should run clear after cooking.
- Wash fresh produce: Wash leafy greens, vegetables and fruits before eating them, even if they are pre-packaged.
- Keep food at a safe temperature: 40–140°F (5–60°C) is the ideal temperature for the growth of bacteria. Don’t leave leftovers sitting at room temperature. Instead, put them right in the fridge.
Summary There are a number of steps you can take to reduce your risk of food poisoning. Practice good hygiene, check use-by dates, wash fruits and vegetables before eating them and keep food out of the temperature danger zone of 40–140°F (5–60°C).
Food poisoning is an illness caused by eating food contaminated with bacteria, viruses or toxins.
It can result in a range of symptoms such as stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting and even death.
Poultry, seafood, deli meat, eggs, unpasteurized dairy, rice, fruits and vegetables carry a high risk of food poisoning, especially when they’re not stored, prepared or cooked properly.
To minimize your risk, follow the simple tips listed above to ensure you take special care when buying, handling and preparing these foods.