Illin' Like a Villain: the Foods Most Likely to Poison You

Ransom Riggs

Every year or so I manage to give myself food poisoning, and as any of you who've ever had it can attest, it's pretty much the worst thing ever. A few years ago it was a plate of fast-food Thai that had an egg -- not cooked too well, in retrospect -- cracked over it. The following year I had some eggs benedict that had been sitting under a lukewarm heating lamp for too long; I ate them a few hours before a good friend's wedding and got so sick that I passed out during the vows -- then was super sick the whole night and had to get on a plane first thing in the morning. So I swore off eggs benedict and cheap Thai food. But such a piecemeal approach to food safety (that made me sick, therefore I won't eat it again) will never completely protect me from future poisonings -- there are too many foods out there that could potentially be carrying harmful bacteria. For instance, earlier this week I discovered -- the hard way, of course -- that frozen yogurt can make you violently ill. So no more fro-yo for me -- but I also wanted to take a look at some of the major kinds of food that can make you sick, and how best to protect against food poisoning.

Leafy Greens
Since 1990, 363 separate food-borne illness outbreaks were traced to leafy greens like lettuce, endive, spinach, cabbage, kale, arugula and chard, sickening more than 13,500 people. In 2006, leafy greens hit the national radar when bagged spinach was linked to a rash of E. coli poisonings, which led to several deaths. Another pathogen that makes a frequent appearance in leafy greens is Norovinus, commonly spread by the unwashed hands of a food handler or consumer. They can also pick up nasty bugs on the farms where they're grown, where they come into contact with farm animals and their poo, the pathogens from which can hang out and grow despite chlorine washes and post-harvest treatments -- in fact, bacteria can inhabit the washing systems used in making pre-washed bagged lettuce, so always wash your leafy greens thoroughly before you eat them, no matter what it says on the bag.

Shell eggs
Most people who get sick from eating eggs are infected by salmonella, which can inhabit the ovaries of otherwise healthy hens. The best way to kill salmonella is heat, so avoid eating eggs that are either raw or "runny," or leaving egg dishes on breakfast buffets or under weak heat lamps for long periods (this is how I got sick from eggs benedict and almost ruined by friend's wedding). Catered events account for the largest proportion of egg-related poisonings behind prisons.

Tuna contain a natural toxin dangerous to humans that begins to be released if it's stored in temperatures that are too warm, and once that's happened, it can't be destroyed by cooking, cleaning, freezing, curing, or canning. Which means that if at any point after being caught the fish is handled improperly, there's nothing you can do to make it safe -- besides throwing it away. Known as scombroid poisoning (an aptly sinister name), symptoms can include skin flushing, headaches, cramps, nausea, diarrhea, palpitations and loss of vision. More often that not, scombroid illnesses involve fresh fish -- we're looking at you, sushi-lovers.

Though they compose a tiny part of the average American's diet, oysters are responsible for a much larger percentage of poisonings. When served raw or undercooked, oysters contaminated with Norovirus (which can come from the water they live in) can give you gastroenteritis. Yikes. Another pathogen oysters can carry is called Vibrio, which is related to cholera and is very dangerous -- for immuno-compromised people, Vibrio poisoning can cause an infection of the bloodstream, which is fatal in about 50% of cases. Bottom line: if you suffer from HIV, AIDS or another immune system compromising condition, DON'T EAT RAW OYSTERS.

Really? Potatoes? Yep: especially when prepared as potato salad, which can contain a broad range of ingredients and a broad range of pathogens. Cross contamination due to improper handling is often the culprit -- potatoes can pick up and transfer nasty pathogens from uncooked meat very easily.

83 cheese-related illness outbreaks have sickened thousands of Americans since 1990. Salmonella is the top hazard when it comes to cheese, which can become contaminated during the initial phases of production (curdling, molding and salting) or during processing. Most cheeses are now made with pasteurized milk, which lowers the risk of contamination, but warnings have been issued about Latin American-style cheese like queso fresco which are sometimes made by unlicensed manufacturers using unpasteurized milk. Pregnant woman should avoid eating soft cheese like feta and Brie, which can carry Listeria, a pathogen that can trigger miscarriage. (Yikes, this blog is kind of a downer.)

Ice cream
Salmonella and Staph can live in ice cream, which can be contaminated by improperly processed or handled eggs used in the mixture. Nearly half of all ice cream outbreaks occurred in private homes and involved homemade ice cream that used undercooked eggs.

Tomatoes have repeatedly been linked to food-borne illness, including a multistate outbreak in 2006 that did a lot of damage to tomato sales across the country. (A 2008 outbreak was wrongly attributed to tomatoes -- it was actually contaminated jalapeno peppers that were responsible.) Salmonella can enter tomato plants through the roots or small cracks in the fruit's skin -- once inside, destroying the pathogen without cooking the tomato is very hard.

Increasingly popular in salad bars and on sandwiches, the seeds used to grow sprouts can become contaminated in the field or during storage, and the warm and humid conditions needed to grow sprouts are ideal for the growth of bacteria, as well. The FDA has been pressing for warning labels on sprouts -- you'll find similar warnings on unpasteurized juice and packages of raw oysters -- but it hasn't been mandated yet.

Berries can be contaminated with Cyclospora and other pathogens, which result in a parasitic illness that won't resolve itself without a trip to the doctor and a round of antibiotics.