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Foods Most Associated with Food Poisoning

Just about any kind of food product can cause a foodborne illness, but certain foods are more associated with food poisoning than others. For instance, raw meat is much more vulnerable to the types of organisms that cause illness than are packaged cereals. From a legal standpoint, consumers who get sick from foods that are not properly prepared, such as poultry or eggs, may have difficulty winning a lawsuit. Understanding the reasonable risks associated with certain foods, and being cautious in general, is the best way to avoid food poisoning.

The following article focuses on the types of foods most associated with foodborne illness, as well as other factors that may cause food poisoning. See FindLaw's Dangerous Foods section for additional articles and resources, including Types of Food Poisoning.

Meat

The flesh of beef, bison, venison, lamb, pork and other mammals is referred to as meat (see "poultry," below, for information about chicken and turkey). Raw meat may contain a number of different organisms capable of causing illness, including E. coli, salmonella, listeria, and certain parasites. Cooking meat to the proper temperature is the only way to kill illness-causing organisms. For instance, ham and pork should be cooked to at least 145 degrees (F), while ground beef needs to be cooked to 160 degrees.

As with all foods, be careful not to recontaminate cooked meats by placing it on a contaminated surface or mixing it with uncooked foods.

Poultry

The flesh of chicken, turkey, duck, and other fowl is referred to as poultry. Raw poultry may contain salmonella, listeria, and campylobacter. While steaks and some other red meats often can be eaten rare, poultry is especially susceptible to salmonella contamination and must always be cooked thoroughly (salmonellosis is among the most common foodborne illnesses in the U.S.). All poultry must be cooked to at least 165 degrees (F).

Eggs

All fresh eggs must be handled with care, even those with clean, intact shells, since they may contain salmonella. Store-bought eggs must be stored in the refrigerator (eggs gathered from a backyard chicken coop, on the other hand, need not be refrigerated) and must be cooked until both the whites and yolks are firm. This means fried eggs with runny yolks ("sunny side up") may present more of a health risk.

Casseroles, quiches, and other egg mixtures should be cooked until the center of the dish is at least 160 degrees (F).

Shellfish

As with raw meat, raw seafood can sometimes contain bacteria that must be cooked in order to be destroyed. Fish that is labled "sushi grade" is handled in a way that results in a much lower bacteria level and is therefore considered safe to eat raw (raw fish served in sushi restaurants typically undergoes rigorous testing). Otherwise, fish with fins must be cooked to 145 degrees (F); shrimp, lobster, and crabs should be cooked until the flesh is opaque; clams, oysters, and mussels should be cooked until the shells open; and scallops must be cooked until the flesh is opaque and firm.

Additionally, some fish (particularly tuna) may contain dangerous levels of mercury, which is harmful to developing babies and should be avoided by pregnant women.

Milk and Dairy

While there is some controversy over the safety of raw milk, which advocates claim is more nutritional than pasteurized milk, the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) official stance is that all milk should be pasteurized in order to kill dangerous organisms. This is the process of heating milk to the point where illness-causing organisms are destroyed. Raw milk has been linked to E. coli, salmonella, and listeria. Soft cheeses made from raw milk should be avoided by pregnant women.

Additional Risk Factors

Foods that mingle the products of many individual animals are particularly hazardous because a pathogen present in one animal may contaminate the whole batch. For instance, a single hamburger may contain meat from hundreds of animals, or a single restaurant omelet may contain eggs from hundreds of chickens.

While washing raw fruits and vegetables decreases contamination, it does not eliminate it.  Many food poisoning outbreaks have shown that the quality of the water used for washing and chilling produce after it is harvested is critical. Unclean water for washing, fresh manure for fertilization, as well as the consumption of some uncooked vegetables and unpasteurized fruit juices all pose higher risks.

Toxins, such as pesticides, inadvertently added to food or naturally poisonous substances used to prepare meals, can also cause foodborne illness. For example, every year, people become ill after eating poisonous reef fishes or after mistaking poisonous mushrooms for one of the safe species.

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