Salad greens make the most people sick, but contaminated poultry kills the most Americans, federal researchers report in the first comprehensive look at the foods that cause foodborne illnesses. And there are a few surprises -- the bug most likely to be lurking in a salad is norovirus, and it probably came from the hands of the person who made it.
This doesn't mean salad is more dangerous, the team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stresses: It just shows what foods are most involved and may reflect how often people eat them.
"When the average American looks at this data, they need to know that we are not trying to make estimates of the risk of illness per serving of any of the food categories," says the CDC's Dr. Patricia Griffin, who heads the agency's branch that investigates stomach bugs.
"We are just providing information on what are the food categories that are the major sources of illness ... so regulators can take action to make food safer."
Food poisoning is extremely common. The CDC estimates that 48 million Americans get some sort of foodborne illness every year, 128,000 of them are sick enough to go to the hospital and 3,000 die. Most of the time, the bacteria, virus or parasite responsible is never identified, and usually the particular food isn't, either.
Griffin's team analyzed all the data they could get on every outbreak of foodborne illness reported between 1998 and 2008 in which both the food source and the microbe responsible were known. They broke the food down into 17 categories.
"We attributed 46 percent of illnesses to produce and found that more deaths were attributed to poultry than to any other commodity," they wrote in their report, published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases on Tuesday.
"(The data ) indicate that efforts are particularly needed to prevent contamination of produce and poultry."
This doesn't mean people should swap out salads for, say, fries.
"We certainly would not want people to avoid any category of food," Griffin said. "We know that the vast majority of meals are safe. As far as fruits and vegetables in particular, CDC is well aware and promotes the fact that they are an important part of a healthy diet. They are linked to reduced risk of heart attacks, strokes and cancer."
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