Food brings us nourishment, joy, and unfortunately, sometimes illness. When the food we eat is contaminated with pathogens like bacteria, parasites, and viruses, it can cause severe disease.
Every year in the United States, an estimated 48 million people get sick with foodborne illness, 128,000 become hospitalized, and 3,000 die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Anyone can get food poisoning, but certain people have a higher risk getting sick and developing severe illness. These include people over the age of 65, children under the age of 5, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems, per the CDC. These individuals may need to take extra precautions.
However, some foods are risky for anyone to consume because they have a higher potential to cause foodborne illness. We spoke to food safety scientists who live and breathe food safety about the top foods they won't eat.
Sprouts — alfalfa, bean, lentil or clover — can add a nice crunch to meals, but eating them raw or even lightly cooked is too risky for these experts.
Any raw produce has the potential to contain disease-causing pathogens, which is why it’s important to wash fruits and vegetables before eating them, Keith Schneider, Ph.D, professor in the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department at the University of Florida, tells TODAY.com.
However, raw sprouts have a much higher risk of carrying disease-causing pathogens compared to other produce, says Schneider. “It’s very hard to produce sprouts in a completely safe manner,” he adds.
Sprouts require warm, moist conditions to grow, which are also ideal conditions for pathogens like E. coli, salmonella, or listeria, to grow, according to the CDC.
“Raw sprouts have been incriminated in a number of outbreaks in the U.S.,” Robert Gravani, Ph.D., professor emertitus of food science at Cornell University, tells TODAY.com.
“There’s sort of a craze for the all natural raw milk products out there. ... To me, that’s not a food, that’s a dare,” says Schneider.
Raw milk has not been pasteurized, Schneider adds — a process that heats the milk to a certain temperature to kill bacteria. "(The U.S. Food and Drug Administration) has a pasteurized milk ordinance for a reason, and that’s to make the product safe,” he adds.
“It’s a raw agricultural product coming out of the udder of a cow right next to its fecal disposal unit, and there’s a high probability the udder can become contaminated, and the bacteria makes it into the milk,” explains Schneider.
These include pathogens like E. coli and campylobacter, he adds, as well as listeria, brucella and salmonella, per the CDC. This applies to raw milk from sheep, goats, camels and buffalo.
“This whole thing that raw milk is healthier for you is absurd in my opinion,” says Schneider.
Raw oysters or clams
“I don’t consume raw molluscan shellfish, like clams or oysters, for obvious reasons. ... They're very risky,” says Gravani.
The main concern is an infection with Vibrio bacteria, Catherine Nettles Cutter, Ph.D., professor of food science and assistant director of food safety programs at Penn State, tells TODAY.com.
These bacteria are naturally occurring in coastal waters, where oysters live, per the CDC, and certain types can cause vibriosis, a gastrointestinal illness. One type, vibrio vulnificus, can enter the bloodstream and cause life-threatening complications, like flesh-eating disease and septic shock.
Recently, a 54-year-old man in Missouri died after contracting v. vulnificus from eating raw oysters, TODAY.com previously reported.
Other infections linked to raw oysters and clams include salmonella, norovirus and hepatitis, says Cutter. Because bivalves are filter feeders, they suck up the water around them and any contaminants as well, which become concentrated in the animal, Cutter explains.
If the water is contaminated with raw sewage, for example, it can end up on the half shell, too. “There’s always a potential for human fecal contamination,” Cutter adds.
Raw or undercooked eggs
The experts avoid raw or undercooked eggs and any foods containing them, such as cookie dough or homemade Caesar dressing. “This does include runny eggs, and some people are willing to take that risk and enjoy sunny side up but I prefer to have my eggs cooked thoroughly,” says Gravani.
Raw and undercooked eggs have a greater potential to be contaminated with pathogens like salmonella, Gravani adds. Infection with salmonella can cause diarrhea, vomiting and stomach cramps lasting up to a week, per the CDC.
"In the U.S., we have certainly done a good job of reducing the risk of salmonella in eggs ... and keeping salmonella out of breeder flocks of chickens, but as a precaution, you want to cook eggs thoroughly to reduce the risk even further," says Gravani.
The CDC recommends cooking eggs until the white and yolk are firm, and heating any dishes with eggs to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Steak tartare is a delicacy to many, but a risk not worth taking for these experts — no matter how fancy the restaurant.
The dish's staple, raw ground or finely chopped beef, can harbor pathogens like E. coli, yersinia and listeria monocytogenes, says Cutter. The same applies to other raw beef dishes, such as carpaccio.
"I usually only consume ground beef products that are prepared well done, because when you have ground beef or meat mixtures, you run an even higher risk of pathogens being present," says Gravani.
In addition to the raw beef, this dish often contains raw egg yolk, upping the risk of salmonella, as well, the experts note.
In the same vein as steak tartare, the experts (for the most part) won’t eat meat that’s rare, which basically means undercooked. This applies to beef and also lamb, pork, poultry and fish.
While it's common for people to eat steak or burgers with reddish and pink centers or lightly seared tuna, for example, these haven't been cooked to a high enough temperature to kill any disease-causing bacteria that could be present, Gravani notes.
In addition to the pathogens previously mentioned in raw beef, undercooked meat can contain staphylococcus aureus, clostridium perfringens and campylobacter, per the CDC — which can cause mild to severe gastrointestinal illness.
It's a risk many people are willing to take for the sake of taste and texture, but the experts? Not so much.
All meat should be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, says Cutter — poultry should be cooked to 165 degrees and seafood to 145 degrees. The terms "rare," "medium" and "well-done" are not always accurate and can vary depending on the cook. "You can't rely on color, it’s not a good indicator. ... You need to check the temperature with a properly calibrated meat thermometer," says Cutter.
Anything in a swollen or damaged can
Canned food doesn't always go bad because it expired after sitting in your cabinet for years. A can that is swollen, severely dented or damaged could be contaminated with bacteria or spoiled due to a mishap in the manufacturing process, the experts note.
"Cans go through a process called retorting, which is basically heating under pressure," says Schneider, adding that this helps keep the food safely preserved. "Clostridium botulinum bacteria is really the organism we’re trying to get rid of," he adds.
Botulism is a rare but severe illness caused by a toxin produced by the bacteria, which can attack the body's nerves and lead to muscle paralysis or even death, per the CDC. "It's terrifying," says Schneider.
When Clostridium makes its way into the can of food and grows, it produces gas, which can cause the can to swell. A bulging can may not always mean botulism, Schneider adds, but it is an indication that something went wrong during the canning process and the food inside could be spoiled — so toss it immediately, he adds.
If a can has severe dent on the side seam, it's leaking, or the integrity of the packaging is compromised, it should be discarded as well, says Gravani.
Cutter warns to be very cautious about home canned foods because the risk of error (and botulism) is higher. Pressure canning tends to be safer than hot water canning, she adds, but anyone concerned about foodborne illness may want to avoid home canned goods entirely.
Reducing your risk of foodborne illness
Food poisoning can't always be 100% prevented and accidents happen, but there are steps you can take to reduce your risk:
- Wash hands with soap and water before, during after cooking food and always after using the bathroom.
- Avoid cross-contamination by keeping raw meat, poultry, eggs and seafood separate from foods that won't be cooked.
- Do not handle or cook food for others when sick.
- Cook food to a safe internal temperature, according to USDA guidelines.
- Refrigerate leftovers within two hours and store in an airtight container in a refrigerator set to 40 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler.