Healthy Foods Carry Hidden Dangers, Study Finds

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Leafy greens, tomatoes and berries: They're packed with vitamins and showcased by nutritionists as healthful foods that Americans should eat regularly.

They are also among the 10 foods most likely to make you sick, according to a nonprofit research group's analysis.

Researchers analyzed federal data collected since 1990 to identify the foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration that caused the largest numbers of foodborne-illness outbreaks. The 10 riskiest foods were, in descending order: leafy greens, eggs, tuna, oysters, potatoes, cheese, ice cream, tomatoes, sprouts and berries.

"These are the products that people are eating every single day and, in some cases, people eat many of them in one day," said Sarah Klein, a staff attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which conducted the study. "One big shame is that so many of these products are healthy for us. Consumers can't and shouldn't avoid these foods. And that's the problem. Consumers can only do so much to make sure they're not getting sick. That's why we need the food industry and the FDA to make sure these products are arriving in our homes and our restaurants in a way that's safe for consumers."

The foods flagged in the report were contaminated by bacteria, from E.coli O157:H7 in spinach to scombrotoxin in tuna. People who ate the contaminated foods suffered a range of illnesses, from mild stomach cramps to death.

The study, which was released Monday, will be available after 11 a.m. Tuesday at It did not consider foods regulated by the Agriculture Department, such as meats, poultry and some egg products.

Among the surprises was the emergence of potatoes as a source of food illness. More than 40 percent of contaminated potatoes were prepared in restaurants and food establishments, and Klein suggested that bacteria might have migrated to potatoes from raw meat or poultry via food handlers or equipment.

One in four Americans are sickened by foodborne illnesses and 5,000 die each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But many cases of foodborne illnesses go unreported, so epidemiologists believe the actual numbers are much higher.

The FDA has been under fire for years for failing to adequately ensure food safety. A wave of recent foodborne illnesses has placed increasing public pressure on Congress to respond.

In July, the House approved legislation that would give the FDA broad new powers and place new responsibilities on food producers. The bill would speed up the ability of health officials to track down the source of an outbreak and enable the government to mandate a recall, rather than rely on food producers to voluntarily pull tainted products from the shelves.

The Senate is expected to take up its version this fall, and the issue has become a high priority for the White House.

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