Analysis of some 33,000 cases of foodborne illness has calculated just how much risk consumers take when they choose their meat.
Chicken nuggets, ham and sausage pose the lowest risk of foodborne illness, while chicken and ground beef are the riskiest meats, according to a report by the Center for Science in Public Interest.
The group used government data on 1,700 outbreaks over 12 years to analyze salmonella, E. coli, listeria and other pathogens that were definitively linked to a certain meat.
To calculate which meats were riskiest, CSPI ranked the foods in which contamination was most likely to cause hospitalizations. Some meats may have had more illnesses but were less likely to cause severe illness.
- Ground beef
"High risk" meats
- Beef (other than ground)
"Medium risk" meats
- Beef or pork barbeque
- Deli Meat
- Roast beef
"Low risk" meats
- Chicken nuggets
A third of the illnesses surveyed were caused by salmonella and E. coli, pathogens that contaminate meat and poultry during slaughter and processing. Another third of the sicknesses were caused by clostridium perfringens, a lesser-known pathogen that usually grows after processing when foods are left at improper temperatures for too long by consumers, restaurants or grocery stores.
While a large number of chicken illnesses were due to clostridium perfringens, chicken led to many hospitalizations partly because of the high incidence of salmonella in chicken that isn't properly cooked.
Most of the ground beef illnesses were caused by E. coli, which is found in the intestinal tracts of cattle and can transfer to the carcass if the meat isn't handled properly during slaughter. Ground beef can be riskier than steak and other beef products because pathogens are spread during the grinding process.
Listeria, salmonella and E. coli required the most hospitalizations, according to the report.
The group noted that the data is incomplete because so many foodborne illnesses are not reported or tracked. As many as 48 million Americans get sick from food poisoning each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates.
To reduce foodborne illnesses from meat, CSPI recommends what they call “defensive eating” – assuming that meat can be unsafe.
Safe handling includes not letting meat juices drip onto other food or counters, cleaning cutting boards and plates that have held raw meat, wearing gloves when preparing meat and washing hands often. Cooks should also make sure meat is heated to the proper temperature before eating it.