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The Top 10 Riskiest Foods Regulated by the FDA

The list includes leafy greens, eggs, tuna

The good news is chocolate is not on the list. The bad news: ice cream is. Some of the healthiest, most inviting foods on your grocery list — lettuce, eggs, ice cream — are the most likely to make you sick, says a Washington, D.C., nonprofit advocacy group.

Researchers at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) on Tuesday announced their own grocery list of the 10 riskiest foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. The most hazardous, in order: leafy greens, eggs, tuna, oysters, potatoes, cheese, ice cream, tomatoes, sprouts and berries.

50,000 cases of food-borne illnesses

According to CSPI’s study, these 10 foods account for nearly 40 percent of all food-borne outbreaks linked to FDA-regulated foods between 1990 and 2006. Nearly 50,000 illnesses — from temporary stomach cramps to disability and death — were reported as a result of the outbreaks. And these illnesses are only the tip of the iceberg. For every case of salmonella poisoning reported, for instance, federal officials estimate that another 38 cases go unreported.

Meat, pork and poultry, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, were not included in the research. Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of CSPI’s food safety program, says the group chose FDA-regulated foods because the federal agency is responsible for “80 percent of the food supply,” including produce, dairy products and seafood, as well as packaged goods like peanut butter and refrigerated cookie dough — both of which were involved in recent food poisoning outbreaks.

Leafy greens, number one culprit

Many of the items that made the top 10 list are healthy, vitamin-packed foods that nutrition experts frequently urge Americans to eat. “Leafy greens hit a nutritional home run, but they’re starting to mimic the well-known risks of ground beef,” says Sarah Klein, an attorney with CSPI and lead author of the study. This is partly because, like the ground scraps and bits collected to make hamburger meat, the popular bags of prewashed, ready-cut greens are collected from a variety of sources. “A large batch can be contaminated by just one item,” notes DeWaal.

Leafy greens, which include iceberg lettuce, romaine, spring mix, spinach and cabbage, sickened nearly 13,570 people who reported becoming ill — an estimated 30 percent of all the reported illnesses caused by the top 10. This includes the highly publicized 2006 outbreak of food poisoning and deaths traced to bagged spinach contaminated with E. coli bacteria.

Eggs, the second most risky food in the study, are now subject to new FDA regulations that went into effect this summer. The rules require egg producers to test for salmonella — the cause of 95 percent of egg-related food illness, according to CSPI — and refrigerate eggs during storage and transportation. The agency, in announcing the new rules in July, said it expects them to help decrease the 30 deaths annually caused by contaminated eggs.

Watch that homemade ice cream

Salmonella in raw and under-cooked eggs was also the culprit when Americans got sick eating ice cream. Almost half of the ice cream outbreaks could be traced to homemade ice cream made with under-cooked eggs, the study found.

That familiar deli standby, potato salad, pushed potatoes onto the risky foods list, says Klein. “Potatoes are always cooked before eating, but they’re likely being cross-contaminated by other items like mayonnaise or meat,” she says. More than 40 percent of potato-related outbreaks were linked to foods prepared in restaurants and food establishments like grocery stores and delis.

Toxic tuna

Researchers were also surprised to find that scromboid poisoning, from the hard-to-destroy scromboid toxin, made tuna the third riskiest food in the CSPI study. The toxin is most commonly found in fresh tuna (think sushi and seared tuna in restaurants), but cannot be destroyed by cooking, freezing, smoking, curing or canning.

Symptoms of scromboid poisoning often include flushed skin, headaches, abdominal cramps and heart palpitations. More than 65 percent of the outbreaks reported from contaminated tuna occurred in restaurants, the study found.

Although the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million food-borne illnesses occur annually, Craig Hedberg of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health notes that “our food supply is relatively safe, with one illness for every 3,000 to 4,000 meals eaten.” Still,” he adds, “new challenges to food safety will continue to emerge and we need a strong and flexible regulatory response.”

Help for the FDA?

The FDA has been criticized for its lax oversight, particularly in the wake of recent illnesses and deaths from tainted spinach and peanut butter products popular with children.

This summer, the House approved a bill that would provide sweeping new powers to the FDA for the first time in 70 years, including stepped-up inspections and the ability to mandate a product recall. The Senate is expected to take up its version this fall and Erik Olson, director of food and consumer product safety with the Pew Health Group, hopes to see a new bill enacted “before Christmas.”

Candy Sagon is a food and health writer in Washington, D.C.