Chicken and ground beef are often staples at the dinner table, but they're also the meat products most likely to make consumers sick, according to a new report.
The report, from the advocacy organization Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), ranks meat products based on their likelihood of causing severe illness.
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At the top of the list was chicken. Between 1998 and 2010, chicken products, including roasted, grilled and ground chicken, were definitively linked to 452 outbreaks of foodborne illness and 6,896 cases of illness in the United States, the report says. (An outbreak was defined as two or more illnesses linked to a common food source.)
Ground beef came in second: The product was linked to 336 outbreaks and 3,801 cases of illness over the same time period.
The report identified other high-risk products, including were turkey and steak, which were responsible for 130 and 82 outbreaks, respectively. Deli meats, pork and roast beef were considered medium-risk products (linked to about 60 to 130 outbreaks) while ham, sausage and chicken nuggets were low-risk (linked to 34 to 57 outbreaks), the report said.
Sarah Klein, CSPI senior food safety attorney, urged Americans to "practice defensive eating" by assuming all meats are hazardous, and taking extra caution in handling, preparing and serving meats.
The report is based on information from 1,714 outbreaks involving 33,372 illnesses in the United States. Each meat product was given a score based on the number of illnesses it caused and the likelihood that people who fell ill from eating the product were hospitalized.
However, the findings are limited because the vast majority of people who fall ill from eating contaminated meat products do not visit the doctor, and their cases are not investigated by public health authorities, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, the food safety director at CSPI.
The bacteria Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 were responsible for about a third of illnesses, the report said. These pathogens most often contaminate meat products during slaughter or meat processing, the report says. The bacteria Clostridium perfringens, which can grow on food that sits out for too long and can cause illness if leftovers are not properly cooked, was responsible for another third of illnesses.
Some experts were critical of the report. Douglas Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University, called the rankings a "gimmick" that distracts people from the big picture that all foods come with risks.
"To my mind, all food is risky and should be treated with care," Powell said. It's important, he said, "to treat all foods, not just meat, but produce — everything — as a potential sources of dangerous microorganisms."
Over the last decade, the biggest source of foodborne illness has been produce, which consumers often eat raw, he added.
Consumers should use a thermometer to tell when their food has reached the proper internal temperature, Powell said. They should thoroughly wash all produce and discard vegetable peels.
Other food safety tips include avoiding cross-contamination in the kitchen: Don't use the same cutting board for raw meat and uncooked foods, Klein said. Pork should be cooked to 145 degrees Fahrenheit, beef to 160 and poultry to 165, Klein said.
The CSPI is looking to the food industry to reduce contamination of their products with bacteria such as Salmonella (primarily a concern with poultry) and E. coli O157:H7 (primarily a concern with ground beef). The organization also agrees with a USDA proposal to label mechanically tenderized steak. These steaks have been punctured with needles or blades that push pathogens into the interior of the product. Steaks that have been treated this way should not be served rare, but consumers have no way of knowing this, Powell said.
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