The average consumer in the United States eats around 130 pounds of beef, pork and poultry every year, providing ample opportunity for foodborne illness to take hold. Fortunately, illness outbreaks linked to meat and poultry have declined during the last 12 years, ever since stricter regulatory oversight and litigation have changed how meat producers function. But still, illness is still a rampant problem, and much of it goes unreported.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington D.C. nonprofit, has taken a look at 12 categories of meat and poultry based on outbreak reports from 1998 to 2010 and analyzed the likelihood of hospitalizations associated with each of the foods.
The report, Risky Meat: A Field Guide to Meat & Poultry Safety, examines 1,700 outbreaks that include more than 33,000 cases of foodborne illness, and ranks the items on a scale from highest risk to low risk. Each food’s risk of causing severe illness was determined by hospitalization rates associated with each outbreak.
CSPI hopes that when they know the foods that carry the greatest risk, consumers will take precautionary steps, such as safer handling and more thorough cooking.
1. Chicken: Highest risk
Various cuts of chicken (like breast and leg), various cooking methods (like roasted, grilled and baked), ground chicken and barbecue chicken grab the top spot for riskiest meats in the country.
(Chicken nuggets are not included in this category since they are identified separately.)
The high number of hospitalizations for chicken comes courtesy of Salmonella. Along with Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens is the most commonly reported cause of illness caused by chicken. While outbreaks linked to chicken rarely make dramatic headlines, chicken recalls can be large. All together, 127 million pounds of chicken and chicken products were recalled between 1999 and 2010. Surprisingly, most of those recalls included fully cooked ready-to-eat foods and not fresh uncooked chicken, as one might expect.
2. Ground beef: Highest risk
Taking the number two position is ground beef, which is the second most common source of meat or poultry outbreaks reported to the CDC. There were more than 140 individual ground beef recalls during the period, resulting in a total of 70 million pounds of ground beef recalled during the 12-year timespan.
E. coli, which leads to a high rate of hospitalizations, was responsible for more than 100 of the outbreaks. Ground beef has also been the source of many outbreaks linked to antibiotic-resistant Salmonella strains. E. coli and Salmonella strains can both cause severe illnesses leading to hospitalization, long-term health problems or death.
3. Steak, Beef (Other): High risk
Almost half of the illnesses linked to steak were caused by E. coli. Steak outbreaks were also linked to Clostridium perfringens, a bacterium commonly associated with improper temperature controls after cooking. Salmonella was also at play in the steak and beef category.
Beef products in the "other" category include beef jerky, beef stroganoff, and chipped beef, which were responsible for 99 outbreaks and at least 2,414 individual illnesses in the period studied; these illnesses were often linked to Clostridium perfringens, suggesting that these foods were improperly handled after cooking.
4. Turkey: High risk
The holiday bird is responsible for the fourth highest level of foodborne illnesses, and like chicken, the illnesses were most often associated with Clostridium perfringens and Salmonella. Clostridium perfringens thrives on cooked foods left at room temperature for too long ... like the holiday table. And in fact, November and December are the months with the highest number of turkey-associated Clostridium perfringens illnesses.
As well, consumers unaccustomed to handling whole, giant, raw birds also lead to food safety issues; simple handling mistakes can easily cross-contaminate kitchens and side dishes. Overall, 33 million pounds of turkey meat were recalled from 1999 to 2010.
5. Barbecue beef or pork: Medium to high risk
Barbecue is a counterintuitive one because of its long cooking time. But the low, indirect heat and post-cooking handling techniques of barbecue make it risky. Barbecue beef or pork most commonly sickens with pathogens Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium perfringens. (Barbecue chicken is not included in this category since it is usually not truly barbecued, but rather, grilled or roasted and then doused in BBQ sauce.)
Nearly 40 percent of barbecue-linked illnesses happened in restaurants, where keeping foods appropriately hot or chilled can be an issue. When restaurants cook large quantities of food like barbecue and leave it at room temperature, it creates an ideal breeding ground for bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium perfringens.
In conclusion, it takes some vigilance to keep pathogens at bay. “Meat and poultry producers must bear primary responsibility for keeping pathogens out of their products, but when it comes to beef, chicken, and other raw meats, restaurateurs and home cooks must treat them like hazardous materials and take steps to minimize risk,” said CSPI senior food safety attorney Sarah Klein.
Oh, and what's on the lowest end of the list? Chicken nuggets, ham and sausage.
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