Chicken And Ground Beef Pose Extraordinary Health Risk

By Sridhar Nadamuni , May 11, 2013 09:47 PM EDT

The risk of foodborne illness and hospitalization is the highest with ground beef and chicken, according a recent report published by the Center for Science in Public Interest (CSPI). Listeria, Salmonella and E. coli cause the most hospitalizations.

Each year, 48 million Americans get sick from food poisoning, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die, according to Centers for Disease Control and Infection (CDC, Atlanta) statistics. The most common foodborne illnesses are caused by Norovirus, Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, and Campylobacter.  According to CDC, symptoms of food poisoning  include diarrhea or  even life-threatening as organ failure. The illnesses can even lead to chronic health problems or death. Young children, pregnant women, older adults, and people with weak immune systems are especially susceptible to foodborne illnesses from eating contaminated food. According to the CDC, they have an increased chance of severe sickness with problems like miscarriage or kidney failure.

Using government data on 1,700 outbreaks over 12 years to analyze salmonella, E. coli, listeria and other pathogens, experts at the Center for Science in Public Interest, ranked the foods in which contamination was most likely to cause hospitalizations.

The CSPI findings were based on an analysis of more than 33,000 cases of foodborne illness. The data suggest that ground beef and chicken are associated with more hospitalizations than other meats. High risk meats include turkey and steak. On the other hand, deli meat, pork, roast beef and beef or pork barbeque were deemed "medium risk."

Chicken nuggets, ham and sausage pose the lowest risk of foodborne illness, according to the report.

The findings suggest that contamination with Salmonella and E. coli during slaughter and processing was to blame, accounting for a third of the illnesses analyzed. Infection with Clostridium perfringens accounted for a third of all the illnesses; it affects foods left at improper temperatures for too long.

The high incidence of Salmonella contamination in improperly cooked chicken is responsible for the large number of hospitalizations, according to the report.

The risk from ground beef consumption was attributed to E. coli contamination originating in the intestinal tracts of the cattle, and transferred to the carcass during slaughter. "The deadly bacterium E. coli O157:H7, for instance, was responsible for 100 outbreaks associated with ground beef in the 12-year study period," according to the report. Ground beef was considered riskier than steak and other beef products due to the contamination with pathogens during the grinding process.

The lesson for meat eaters: Cook the meat to the right temperature before eating it, to reduce foodborne illnesses. The CDC recommends  "45°F for whole meats (allowing the meat to rest for 3 minutes before carving or consuming), 160°F for ground meats, and 165°F for all poultry."

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