Foodborne Illness: The Foods That Can Literally Make You Sick

Staying away from processed foods loaded with sugar and other fillers may not be enough to to keep you healthy. No matter how nutritious the ingredients in your basket, there’s still a risk of winding up ill from consuming some unintended passengers. Harmful bacteria, including salmonella, sometimes work their way into the foods we buy at the grocery store. Even undeclared ingredients can cause problems because some folks have allergies that can lead to a deadly reaction if a food isn’t handled carefully.

It’s easy to wave off the risk as something only a few unlucky people will suffer, but the problem is bigger than ever. According to a report by Swiss Re, the number of food recalls in the U.S. has almost doubled since 2002. While a recall doesn’t necessarily mean anyone has reported falling ill, it’s still a bit shocking. To keep you healthy, we’re sharing seven of the most commonly recalled foods and what you can do to minimize your risk.

1. Leafy greens

bagged spinach

Be wary of bagged spinach. |

Eating your greens is a great way to get vitamins, fiber, and a host of other nutrients. The sad news is these veggies are among the most risky. A report published in Emerging Infectious Diseases took a look at the number of illnesses associated with different foods and leafy green vegetables led the way, sickening 2.2 million people from 1998 to 2008.

Though greens can become contaminated with a number of different types of bacteria, E. coli is one of the most common. So how does it end up on lettuce? According to SFGate, the bacteria typically comes from livestock droppings, which are frequently close to the produce farms.

In order to minimize your risk, always make sure you remove the outer layers of any greens you buy. And thoroughly wash both your hands and the greens before consuming.

2. Eggs


Eggs are often behind salmonella poisoning. |

Everyone’s favorite breakfast food is also one of the most risky when it comes to harboring salmonella. According to the FDA, 79,000 illnesses are reported each year from eating eggs contaminated with salmonella. Ingesting this bacteria can lead to nausea, cramps, vomiting, and a host of other nasty symptoms. Severe cases can require hospitalization and, while rare, be fatal. Even mild cases can leave you feeling terrible, so you definitely want to minimize your chances of getting sick.

When you buy eggs at the store, always make sure they’re properly refrigerated and give them a good scan before tossing the carton in your cart. If you see any cracks, steer clear. Thorough cooking will also reduce your risk. If you’re making a recipe that calls for raw eggs or just like to keep the yolks runny, you can buy eggs that have been pasteurized to kill any lingering bacteria.

3. Dairy products

dairy products

Dairy products can be dangerous. |

Most people are guilty of buying groceries, then letting them hang out in the car or on the counter for too long. Some foods are fine sitting out, but dairy products are not among them. Men’s Health explains the bacterial danger zone ranges from 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, so letting your milk sit out in your warm kitchen isn’t a good idea.

Though most milk has been pasteurized, raw milk is a different story, and it’s a lot easier to find these days. Since raw milk doesn’t go through this heating procedure that kills off harmful bacteria, the chances of picking up something nasty are a lot higher. This goes for cheeses made with raw milk as well.

Finally, always check the outdate on any dairy product you purchase. Grocery stores usually do a great job of rotating their products, but you’ll occasionally find items that have long outlived their sell-by date.

4. Cantaloupe


Cantaloupe can be dangerous to your health. |

Don’t be fooled into thinking fruits and veggies with thick skins are safe, because it’s still remarkably easy for any bacteria on the exterior to wind up on the portions you eat. According to the New York Daily News, cantaloupe is particularly susceptible because the surface is relatively porous, so bacteria on the outside can easily travel into the actual fruit. What’s more, these melons also grow on the ground and contain very low acid levels, which both encourage bacterial growth. Outbreaks involving listeria and salmonella have been linked to this fruit.

Cutting the rind from a cantaloupe isn’t enough because you’ll just transfer whatever was on the outside to the inside when you slice. Instead, make sure to thoroughly wash, scrub, and dry the exterior before you start. Once it’s cut, keep it stored in the fridge.

5. Baked goods

Walnut Brownies

Even brownies can harbor bacteria. |

Despite strict requirements to list all ingredients on food labels, many products come in contact with unintended ingredients during processing. While it may not matter for some folks, those with allergies could have a severe reaction. According to Food Safety Magazine, bakery goods were responsible for 153 recalls due to undeclared allergens while packaged snack foods came in distant second at 62 recalls.

Anyone who has severe allergies or intolerances to common foods like milk, eggs, nuts, and soy, would be wise to make these treats at home. And read labels very carefully if you do buy at the store. Though it’s often in small print, many packages indicate if a food was processed in a facility that handles major allergens.

6. Tuna

tuna steaks

Be picky about where you get your tuna. |

We’re all familiar with salmonella poisoning and listeria poisoning, but what about scombrotoxin poisoning? This illness is typically caused by consuming certain species of fish, most notably tuna, that were allowed to warm too much. When this happens, the fish begins to release a toxin called histamine. Unfortunately, neither freezing nor cooking can destroy it, so you need to be particularly careful. Buying seafood from a reputable source is your best defense against this illness.

7. Sprouts

Bean sprouts, mung beans

Sprouts are one of the worst foods for harboring unwanted bacteria. |

This health food staple is particularly risky when it comes to foodborne disease. A report commissioned by CBC News took a closer look at sprouts and found most samples contained traces of bacteria, including some that come from fecal matter. Kevin Allen, the researcher behind the study and a professor of microbiology at The University of British Columbia, told the publication sprouts are especially risky because they grow in warm, moist environments, which are perfect for bacteria growth. Even thorough washing doesn’t guarantee clean produce. If you must eat sprouts, give them the skillet treatment.