Every year food poisoning affects millions of people all around the world. Illnesses range in severity and in some cases can even result in death.
The Food Safety Information Council estimates there are 4.1 million cases of food poisoning each year.
There are lots of different causes of food poisoning - like bacteria, chemicals and toxins. But some foods are more likely to make you sick than others. This is because these foods are more at risk of bacterial growth than others. So, if they aren’t cooked to a certain temperature or aren’t stored or handled properly, there’s a higher chance they’ll make you sick.
Foodborne illnesses can take days or even weeks to develop, so it can be difficult to find the cause of the sickness. What can help though, is knowing which foods to be extra careful with when storing, handling and cooking. So, we’ve put together a list of some of them.
Raw and undercooked poultry has a high-risk of causing food poisoning if it's not handled properly. Campylobacter bacteria and salmonella are the two most common contaminants of poultry and even small amounts can make people seriously sick. These bacteria often contaminate the raw meat when it’s first processed and can survive up until cooking kills them.
Although these bacteria can live on raw poultry, there are ways to lower the risk. Always make sure that poultry is completely cooked through before you eat it because this will kill harmful bacteria. Also, don’t wash raw chicken before cooking it because this will just spread the bacteria around your kitchen, making it easier to contaminate something else. When handling raw chicken and other poultry it’s really important to thoroughly wash and sanitise anything that the raw meat touches - including utensils, clothes, chopping boards and especially your hands.
Eggs are a versatile, convenient and nutritious protein and are part of countless meals all around the world. However, they’re considered high-risk when it comes to food poisoning, specifically when raw or undercooked.
Salmonella in eggs is responsible for many of the foodborne illness cases in Australia. Bacteria can contaminate either the yolk, the white or the eggshell. Often a contaminated egg will not look, smell or taste any different, making it almost impossible to detect.
Many popular meals contain lightly cooked or even raw eggs, so have a high risk of causing foodborne illness. It’s recommended that you thoroughly cook all foods that contain eggs, and avoid foods that purposely contain undercooked eggs, like mayonnaise and salad dressings. It’s also important not to taste anything that contains raw eggs when you’re cooking - cake batter for example.
To enjoy eggs safely, it’s recommended that you buy clean, uncracked eggs. You should keep them cool, preferably under 5°C. Also, make sure when cracking the egg, the egg yolk or white doesn’t touch the outside of the shell before going in the dish.
These recommendations are especially important for vulnerable people - including children, the elderly, pregnant women and anyone suffering from an illness that weakens the immune system.
Leafy Greens and Vegetables
Because leafy greens and vegetable are often eaten raw, any harmful contaminants affecting them won’t be killed in the cooking process. Bacteria like E. coli can live in the soil that the greens are grown in and can easily leave traces on them. Contaminated water and animals can also transfer harmful substances to the food at any time during the supply-chain.
Washing lettuce and vegetables not only reduces the risk of harmful bacteria being present but also any chemical pesticides that might still be on the food. Always make sure that before you eat them, lettuce, vegetables and salad greens are thoroughly washed.
Raw milk is milk that is unpasteurised, which means that it hasn’t been heated to kill any harmful bacteria. The risk of consuming raw milk is that there’s a higher chance of the milk containing bacteria, for example, E. coli, salmonella or listeria. If consumed, these bacteria can cause a range of food poisoning illnesses, which vary from mild to life-threatening.
Cheese is another food that’s considered to be at high-risk of contamination. Pregnant women are usually told to avoid eating all soft cheeses, for example, feta and ricotta, because of the risk of becoming sick. Tragically, in some cases, eating contaminated cheese can cause serious complications in pregnancy - including miscarriage.
Staphylococcus aureus is another common bacteria that can be found in cheese. It’s often transferred to the cheese from an infected person that comes into contact with it. The bacteria have a high tolerance for salt, so cheese and meat are an ideal breeding ground. Like some other causes of food poisoning, Staphylococcus aureus is heat resistant so cooking doesn’t kill it.
The best ways to stop cheese becoming contaminated are to make sure it’s stored at or under 5°C; thoroughly wash your hands before handling the cheese and if possible, wear single-use disposable gloves; and make sure all surfaces, utensils and equipment that the cheese touches have been thoroughly cleaned and sanitised. Also, avoid eating unpasteurised products.
Sprouts grow in a warm and wet environment, which are the perfect conditions for rapid bacteria growth. This means they’re really difficult to keep clean. Because sprouts are often eaten raw, they carry a high-risk of causing foodborne illness, in particular from salmonella and E. coli.
If contaminated, it’s likely that the seeds of the sprouts are the home of any harmful bacteria. Although there are different ways to reduce the risk of contamination, no treatment is guaranteed to kill all of the bacteria.
Often people who might be more vulnerable to the effects of the potential bacteria - pregnant women, the elderly, children and people with a weakened immune system - are directed to stay away from sprouts. If you’re going to eat them, you’re advised to cook all raw sprouts to lower the risk of potential contamination.
Fish must be properly stored throughout the entire supply chain. This begins when the fish is first caught and ends when it’s prepared and eaten. When it comes to food poisoning from seafood, there are many different illnesses. It all depends on the type of seafood, whether it’s contaminated with a toxin, bacteria or another harmful substance, and the conditions the fish has been kept in.
Fish which is not stored at the correct temperature has a high-risk of being contaminated with histamine. This is a toxin that can cause Scombroid poisoning and unlike many other dangerous contaminants, isn’t destroyed by normal cooking temperatures.
Another common foodborne illness which can develop after eating contaminated fish is Ciguatera poisoning, which occurs because of ciguatoxin. Unfortunately as ciguatoxin is also heat stable, cooking the fish before eating will not rid the fish of the harmful toxin.
Shellfish also carries the risk of food poisoning because the algae that the shellfish live in, produces many toxins that can build up to dangerous levels. The more well-known foodborne illnesses that these toxins can cause are neurotoxic shellfish poisoning, amnestic shellfish poisoning and paralytic shellfish poisoning.
Like the previous two toxins, cooking the shellfish will not reduce the toxic risk to safe levels. To safeguard against these heat stable toxins, you’re often advised to avoid eating seafood in developing countries and if you’re not sure whether it’s safe to eat - don’t.
Rice is one of the most eaten foods on the planet and is also considered a high-risk food when it comes to food poisoning. It can become contaminated with Bacillus cereus, which can initially infect and live in uncooked rice as spores. Rather than eliminating the spores, cooking actually activates them and moist cooked rice is the perfect breeding ground for harmful bacteria. Not storing cooked rice properly is one of the biggest culprits of foodborne illnesses in the world.
All cooked rice should be stored in the refrigerator at the correct temperature, under 5 degrees Celsius, to avoid the further growth of bacteria. Rice that has high-risk proteins in it, for example, pork or egg, carries an even higher risk of contamination.
Deli meats and other cold-cut meats are often highly processed and include ham, hot dogs, salami and bacon. The storage of deli meats is especially important because they’re often not cooked before being eaten.
Listeria and other harmful bacteria can find its way into the processing factory and contaminate meats after they’ve been cooked but before they’ve been packaged. This is why it’s very important to cook hot dogs and bacon to at least 75 degrees Celsius for at least 3 minutes before eating. Also, cold meats should always be stored under 5 degrees Celsius to reduce the risk of further bacterial growth.
All meats carry a high-risk of causing foodborne illness if they’re not prepared and stored properly. Although many people prefer their red meat not to be cooked completely through, this can mean that the amount of bacteria remaining on the meat is not brought down to a safe level. Those people who are more susceptible to illness are advised to make sure that all meats are thoroughly cooked – this included pregnant women, children, the elderly and anyone who suffers from a weakened immune system.
Perhaps surprisingly, lots of raw fruits and berries have a high-risk of causing food poisoning. Listeria, in particular, can grow on the skins of fruits and vegetables and can cause food poisoning if eaten. Salmonella has been found responsible for more and more cases of food poisoning, which have been traced back to berries, hot peppers and tomatoes.
Melons also have a high-risk of causing food poisoning because they’re not often washed before being eaten. Harmful substances can easily be transferred to the flesh of the fruit anytime throughout the supply chain process.
The growing environment of these foods is a major factor in their high-risk status. They’re often grown in warm, humid conditions, which is the perfect breeding grounds for bacteria. Thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables and storing them at the proper temperature before consumption is essential to minimise the risk.