The ten foods in your shopping cart that are most likely to make you sick have been revealed.
Researchers at Consumer Reports ranked regularly purchased foods based on how many outbreaks, deaths and illnesses they had caused in the US between 2017 and 2022.
Their list included more than 200million units of recalls and 5,000 food poisoning cases. They found that leafy greens were the worst offenders, alongside cheeses and deli meats, ground beef and chicken and turkey.
But there were also some surprises — including onions and flour — with researchers saying outbreaks in these products were linked to contaminated irrigation water.
Brian Ronholm, the director of food policy at the New York-based group, said: ‘We aren’t saying people need to avoid these foods entirely. After all, these foods are all usually safe and many of them are in fact important parts of a healthy diet.
Shown above are the ten foods that are most likely to make you sick. The list is based on the number of recalls, illnesses and deaths linked to foods commonly bought in grocery stores between 2017 and 2022
‘But the list underscores the importance of following best food safety practices with all of your foods, including knowing how to track, and respond, to food recalls as they happen.’
About 48million Americans fall sick from salmonella, listeria and E.coli picked up in foods every year.
Most recover on their own after a few unpleasant days, but nearly 130,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne illnesses annually.
Children under five years old, older people and pregnant women are at greatest risk beause they have a weaker immune system.
Outbreaks are often linked to E.coli, listeria and salmonella, bacteria which are often found lurking in the guts of animals. They can get into food via contaminated irrigation water or machinery in factories.
Below is the list of foods most likely to make you sick:
Leafy greens came top of the list for the food most likely to make you sick
Number of deaths: 11
Number of illnesses: 614
Outbreaks and units recalled: 50 and 4,390,638 cases.
Leafy Greens came top of the list for foods that are most likely to make you sick after consumption.
They were behind the most deaths out of all the items on the list and the second highest number of outbreaks — behind only cheese and deli meat.
Researchers said that lettuces, arugula, kale and others tend to get contaminated by dirty irrigation water.
Cows hold billions of dangerous bacteria like E.coli and listeria in their guts. When the animals defecate, these are released onto the soil where they can be washed into the groundwater supply.
These ‘dirty’ waters can then be sucked up by machines and used to irrigate crops, spraying the bacteria directly onto greens.
Contamination can also happen during packaging, researchers said, because should the bacteria get onto machinery it can quickly be spread to many leafy greens.
There are also few packaging centers in the salad industry, raising the risk of widespread contamination.
Machinery contamination was likely behind the 2021 outbreak when a major recall by Dole saw 76 products recalled while Fresh Express had to recall more than 100 products.
Farmers in California and Arizona — where most US greens are grown — are trying to reduce the risk by grazing cattle away from their crop fields.
But Consumer Reports said there are also several steps consumers can take to limit their risk of infection.
This includes buying whole-head lettuce instead of mixed products because this has not been exposed to as much machinery cutting the risk of contamination.
They said it would also be worth removing the outer leaves on greens before eating them, as this is where most bad bacteria will be lurking.
Cheese and deli meats were second most likely
Cheese and deli meat
Number of deaths: 7
Number of illnesses: 409
Outbreaks and amount recalled: 122 and 16,925,594lbs
Listeria can be accidentally introduced to delis by contaminated meat or cheese.
Once there, the bacteria are adept at surviving in cool and damp conditions meaning it will flourish and start to spread between products. Handling the foods further helps it spread between foods.
Listeria is particularly dangerous, with 90 percent of people infected ending up in hospital. In pregnant women, an infection can lead to miscarriage or deaths.
In an outbreak late last year linked to deli meat, one person died and another 13 were hospitalized as well as a pregnant woman who miscarried.
To limit the risk of catching listeria, Consumer Reports recommended avoiding deli counters altogether.
They said the meats in them are often ‘nutritional nightmares’, being high in salt and made of processed meat — linked to cancer and heart disease.
To further limit exposure, they also recommended buying pre-packaged cooked meats instead as this limits the risk of infection.
Ground beef, which is usually made up of seveeral animals, was third
Number of deaths: 2
Number of illnesses: 643
Outbreaks and amount recalled: 22 and 13,744,438lbs
Ground beef came third on the list of foods most likely to make someone ill, with two deaths and 643 illnesses linked to it since 2017.
Bacteria within cows’ guts — E.coli and salmonella — can get into their meat, researchers warned.
This can happen with steaks, but the bacteria is usually on the outside and is quickly killed during cooking.
But with processed meat, the bacteria can end up anywhere within the mince — which is often made up of several animals.
To avoid illness, Consumer Reports said the ground beef would need to be entirely cooked through to ensure any lurking bacteria were killed.
They also suggested keeping meats in bags within the refrigerator and to have a separate chopping board for meat and vegetables.
The meat should be stored at 40F (4C) they added to limit bacteria growth while frozen foods should be thawed in a refrigerator.
Onions also made the list, which the reseaerchers said was linked to major recalls due to contaminated irrigation water
Number of deaths: None since 2017
Number of illnesses: 2,167
Outbreaks and amount recalled: 13 and 78,015,814lbs
Onions are often added to meals as a way to increase their volume, texture or, for some people, flavor.
But research by Consumer Reports found the seemingly benign vegetable was the fourth most likely food to make someone ill.
Their report found that it was behind the most food poisoning cases since 2017 out of all items on the list, with some 78million lbs of onions having to be recalled.
Like leafy greens, they can get contaminated with salmonella after they are irrigated with water that contains droppings from wild birds.
In 2020 and 2021, two large recalls of red, white and yellow onions had to be called because of contamination with salmonella.
Consumer Reports said that in most cases salmonella is killed during cooking.
But they said that in order to further avoid the bacteria, shoppers should not purchase bruised onions — because the damage makes it easier for bacteria to enter the vegetable.
They also suggested not washing onions if you are not going to cook them for hours because this can help drive the growth of bacteria. This should only be done just before cooking.
Chicken and turkey were also linked to food poisonings
Chicken and Turkey
Number of deaths: 3
Number of illnesses: 588
Outbreaks and amount recalled: 8 and 584,711lbs
Also on the list were chicken and turkey due to previous recalls over contamination with salmonella.
This micro-organism lives in the guts of the birds and can be transferred between them via contact with droppings.
It often lives among the poultry thanks to the filthy and crowded conditions that they are reared in and can then contaminate carcasses while they are processed in a factory.
The bacteria is a known risk with the birds that is accepted by the US Department of Agriculture.
Their guidelines state that salmonella can be in up to 9.8 percent of chickens tested, 15.4 percent of chicken parts and 25 percent of ground chicken.
Salmonella can be killed when chicken or turkey are heated during cooking.
But to further limit risk, Consumer Reports says not to wash any poultry before cooking.
They said this could wash any salmonella on them onto the sink which can then be transferred into other foods.
Papayas can become contaminated when they are chopped by machines
Number of deaths: 2
Number of illnesses: 332
Outbreaks and amount recalled: 12 and 600,974lbs
Coming seventh on the list were papayas which are often imported into the United States from Mexico.
These fruits can become contaminated with salmonella via irrigation systems that are frequented by waterfowl.
Previous investigations showed that the papayas could also be contaminated in factories.
They may be washed in water containing too little chlorine, providing an opportunity for the bacteria to spread, or factories may keep reusing pallets that could have become contaminated.
Consumer Reports said it was best to avoid pre-cut papaya to limit the risk of catching salmonella from the fruit.
Peaches can also be contaminated by machinery
Number of deaths: 0 since 2017
Number of illnesses: 101
Outbreaks and amount recalled: 6 and 113,062,324lbs
Peaches ranked eighth on the list of foods that are most likely to make you sick.
The fruits are often grown near animals, researchers said, raising the risk of bacteria like salmonella getting onto their surfaces.
During processing in factories where the fruits are cut up, this can then be transferred onto its flesh causing illnesses.
An investigation by the FDA in 2020 led to 113million pounds (lbs) of peaches being recalled after they were found to have been grown in orchards near feedlots for animals.
Testing by the agency revealed salmonella both in the animal pens and on the fruits in the orchard.
They suggested the bacteria may have reached the fruits via irrigation or been picked up in the wind by dust and ‘blown’ onto them.
Consumer Reports recommended avoiding purchasing cut peaches to limit the risk of infection.
Cantaloupes also pose a risk of bacterial infection
Number of deaths: 0 since 2017
Number of illnesses: 302
Outbreaks and amount recalled: 4 and 279,205 ‘retail units’ and 946 one gallon tubs of cantaloupe balls and chunks
For cantaloupes and other melons, the researchers said contamination tends to happen when the fruits are prepared.
There may be salmonella on the skin on the outside of the fruit, they said.
But when the fruits are cut into cubes or balls before sale, this risks transferring the bacteria onto the chunks — raising the risk of illness.
Consumer Reports recommended avoiding buying pre-cut cantaloupes or other melons.
Flour also made the list of the top ten foods most likely to make you sick
Number of deaths: 0 since 2017
Number of illnesses: 44
Outbreaks and amount recalled: 22 and no unit given
Innocuous flour used in cookie and brownie mixes and premade cake batter was also added to the list.
A survey of recalls by Consumer Reports found that it had been linked to some 22 outbreaks of E.coli and salmonella since 2017.
These bacteria are normally found in animals’ guts and droppings.
But while wheat is growing in the field, this can get onto the grain surface either via contaminated water or wild animal droppings, such as from deer and birds.
When the grains are ground down into flour the bacteria are not killed but end up mixed into the mixture.
Consumer Reports said that when flour is cooked before consumption the bacteria are killed, avoiding infection.
But they said that to further limit risk, people should also avoid consuming raw homemade dough or batter. This is yet to have been cooked and could still contain salmonella.
They also suggested keeping ready-to-eat fresh produce away from flour because this could pass on bacteria.