Women shopping for produce at the grocery store.

Eggs, flour, romaine lettuce, and sliced melon are just a few of the foods responsible for hundreds of cases of salmonella or E. coli infections nationwide in the past year. Have you ever wondered why the foods involved in such outbreaks seem to be so varied?

Most people know that undercooked meat and fish can be risky—in the past two months alone, there have been salmonella outbreaks in kosher chicken and raw turkey. But a wide variety of foods cause the foodborne illnesses that affect 1 in 6 Americans—and kill 3,000—each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

More on Food Safety

As a microbiologist who studies foodborne bacteria, I try to practice what I preach. When I cook at home, I follow good kitchen hygiene habits, using separate cutting boards for meat and veggies; ensuring that meat is cooked to the right temperature with a food thermometer; and sanitizing all utensils, knives, cutting boards, and countertops.

At restaurants, I avoid raw shellfish because it’s one of the riskier food types.

But no food is totally free from bacterial contamination, so it’s important to raise your food safety IQ. Here, the lessons we can take away from recent outbreaks to help avoid food poisoning.

Romaine Lettuce

What happened: Last spring, Romaine lettuce contaminated with a toxic strain of E. coli sickened 210 people across 36 states, killing five. A separate outbreak of E. coli involving romaine and other leafy greens occurred at the end of 2017, affecting 67 people (two of whom died) in the U.S. and Canada.

What you should do: Leafy greens are a common source of food poisoning because bacteria can adhere to leaves and get trapped in crevices. Rinsing may remove some—but not all—bacteria that can make you sick. Cooking greens such as chard or spinach until fully wilted is likely to kill the bacteria. You can cook lettuce, but because it’s mostly eaten raw, in this case avoiding romaine was the best bet. 

Sliced Melon

What happened: Precut watermelon, honeydew, and cantaloupe potentially contaminated with salmonella were shipped to 22 states in June. At least 77 people became ill; 36 were hospitalized.

What you should do: The more a food is handled, the more opportunities there are for it to become contaminated. You’re better off cutting up whole produce yourself: That way, you can follow good safety practices. For melon, rinse the rind with warm water and scrub it with a veggie brush to avoid transferring bacteria from the outside to the flesh when slicing. Keep prep surfaces and knives clean. 

Flour

What happened: Federal agencies warned against eating raw flour after E. coli-tainted batches sickened 63 people in 24 states in 2016; 17 were hospitalized.

What you should do: Don’t eat raw flour. This includes unbaked bread, cookie, or pizza dough; and uncooked pancake or waffle batter. Clean surfaces such as countertops and storage containers that may have come into contact with raw flour or unbaked dough, and wash your hands after handling it. 

Eggs

What happened: Last spring, more than 200 million eggs were recalled because of potential contamination with salmonella, a bacteria that can cause abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. Forty-five people across 10 states were sickened; 11 were hospitalized.

What you should do: At the market, check the carton for broken shells; cracked eggs are more susceptible to contamination. And though chefs will tell you there’s no greater sin than an overcooked egg, under­cooking may have consequences. Some eggs are pasteurized, which reduces harmful bacteria, so if you like your eggs a little runny, buy those. Otherwise, cook until the yolks and whites are firm. Wash hands, countertops, utensils, dishes, and cutting boards with hot, soapy water after cooking, and always refrigerate eggs. 

How to Stay Informed

Outbreaks of foodborne illness can happen anywhere, at any time, and on any kind of food. To keep up with information on the types of foods involved, regularly check the recall and alerts pages of the Food and Drug Administration, CDC, and Department of Agriculture. You can also follow the agencies on Twitter—@US_FDA and @FDAfood, for example.


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To make sure that roast or chicken breast is cooked thoroughly, consider these solid performers from Consumer Reports’ tests.

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AcuRite Digital 00665E meat thermometer

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Oxo Good Grips Instant Read meat thermometer

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Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the September 2018 issue of Consumer Reports On Health