If you are slightly compulsive, as I am, perhaps you’ve been wondering where the biggest risks in the supermarket lie. Researchers at the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida have ranked the top 10 microorganism-food combinations that raise the most concerns from a public-health standpoint.
The most troublesome combination is campylobacter-laden poultry, which sickens more than 600,000 people annually, resulting in nearly 7,000 hospitalizations. Next on the list, which was based on a decade’s worth of data about disease outbreaks, deaths and costs and a peer-reviewed survey of experts, were pork contaminated with toxoplasma and deli meats tainted with listeria.
The most problematic pathogen was salmonella, which appeared four times — in combination with poultry, complex foods (i.e., non-meat dishes composed of multiple ingredients), produce and eggs — and caused just over 250 deaths and nearly 16,000 hospitalizations.
“For the top 10, all together, we’re talking about $8 billion, just in cost of illness, each year,” says the institute’s director, Glenn Morris, an infectious-disease specialist. “People don’t need to be overly paranoid, but it’s important to be aware that the way our food is being produced leaves open the possibility of these serious food-borne illnesses. Everyone should know the risks, because they are very real.”
Indeed, many experts believe this new study is merely the tip of the iceberg. “In the majority of cases, people generally don’t go to the doctor; they just self-treat at home for a few days,” says Jessica Leibler, a research scientist at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services who specializes in infectious diseases in food systems.
In fact, most food poisoning incidents are mild, perhaps causing a day or two of such symptoms as diarrhea or vomiting. “But they can make you absolutely miserable,” says pediatrician and epidemiologist Lynn Goldman, dean of the GWU public-health school. And there can be far more serious, even deadly complications, especially for vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. For example, in rare cases campylobacter causes paralysis, and one particularly toxic type of E. coli bacteria can result in severe kidney damage; both toxoplasmosis and listeria can lead to serious health issues for expectant mothers, including miscarriage, premature labor, birth defects and stillbirth.
Experts say some simple steps can help reduce the likelihood of contracting a food-borne illness in your own kitchen, starting with a vigilant approach to food preparation. “I think you definitely need to consider that anything you buy at the grocery store today . . . could have a pathogen in it or on it,” says Goldman.