CDC: Poultry No. 1 Culprit in Food Poisoning

By Lori Wiviott Tishler, M.D.
Content provided by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School

Poultry is the leading cause of U.S. food poisoning outbreaks, health officials report. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did the report, based on numbers from 2007. The Associated Press wrote about it August 12. Poultry caused 17% of the U.S. outbreaks, the CDC said. Beef accounted for 16% and leafy vegetables 14%. The CDC counted more than 21,000 food poisoning-borne illnesses in 2007. They were part of about 1,100 outbreaks. But most cases aren't reported. The CDC estimates there are 87 million U.S. cases of food poisoning each year. Bacteria cause about half of them, the CDC said. Viruses cause 40% of the cases. Mushroom toxin or other chemicals cause 7% and parasites about 1%.

What Is the Doctor's Reaction?

As vacation rolls around, many of us think about cooking on the grill or picnicking with our friends. This report from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) gives us food for thought about safe buying and cooking practices.

This report uses numbers from 2007. The CDC says that chicken caused 17% of food poisoning outbreaks that year. Beef was a close second at 16%. It was followed by leafy vegetables at 14%. Bacteria and viruses caused about 90% of outbreaks. These are things like salmonella or norovirus.

The CDC included only cases in which one food was clearly the culprit. This means that the numbers did not include outbreaks involving multiple ingredients -- for example, salsa or chicken salad.

What can cause a foodborne outbreak?

  • An infected person handles the food.

  • A contaminated food is stored improperly. This could allow germs to grow.

  • Food is not cooked to a temperature high enough to kill the bacteria or virus.

For most of us, food poisoning is a nuisance. People have a stomachache, some diarrhea or maybe vomiting. Yet, for people who are ill or have weakened immune systems, food poisoning can be lethal. Based on the CDC numbers, the Associated Press (AP) calculated that about 5,000 people die each year from food poisoning. Nearly 400,000 go to the hospital, AP said.

What Changes Can I Make Now?

To prevent food poisoning, you can follow some of these tips:

  • Buy your produce and poultry from clean, reliable sources.

  • Once at home, bring your bundles in and refrigerate or freeze perishables right away.

  • Wash your hands and wash carefully any surfaces that have had raw meat on them.

  • Cook meat thoroughly. The internal temperature of veal, pork and lamb should be at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Beef should be cooked to about 170 degrees. Chicken needs to reach an internal temperature of 185 degrees.

Diarrhea is the most common symptom of food poisoning. But people can also have nausea, cramps and vomiting, among other things. People can get sick at any time from a few hours to a few days after eating bad food. Rarely, people get sick weeks later.

Most people can treat just the symptoms of food poisoning. Be sure to rest and drink plenty of liquids. Talk to a doctor about food poisoning symptoms in anyone who is:

  • Elderly

  • An infant

  • Pregnant

  • Chronically ill

What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?

The rates of foodborne illnesses have not changed much in the last five years. So we probably can expect to keep hearing about contaminated meat, poultry, fruits and vegetables in the future. This makes it all the more important to be cautious about what you eat and how you eat.

I do hope that more attention will be paid to food marketing, processing, inspection and safety. This may decrease the number of food poisoning cases.

Last Annual Review Date: 2010-08-13T00:00:00-06:00