May 28, 2010

Where does food poisoning really come from?

There's pressure on the USDA to monitor meat for more strains of E. coli than it currently does, lest there be a repeat of the Jack in the Box burger outbreak of 1993. But anyone who actually pays attention to what foods have been recalled for poisoning knows that meat contributes very little, and that this is just more animal-phobic balderdash from the government.

For the most recent year of available data, here is the CDC's press release about food poisoning across different types of food. Ignore the number of outbreaks, since that confuses the obvious difference between an "outbreak" of 3 people and an outbreak of 3,000 people; focus on the number of cases instead. Here is a one-page PDF with all the numbers so you can see how all 17 categories of food contributed.

The leading contributor is poultry, in particular baked poultry that was clearly not cooked long enough or at high enough temperature to kill bacteria. So much for red meat being the main killer, and so much for the superiority of baking to frying. When you bake chicken or turkey, you typically don't carve it up beforehand, so the surface area affected by the heat source is pretty small compared to when you cut up the chicken into pieces before throwing them in some oil in a skillet. And the primary infection that comes from undercooked poultry is C. perfringens, whose symptoms don't sound so bad as far as food poisoning goes.

Just about as common, though, were cases caused by leafy green vegetables and fruits/nuts -- and here we're talking E. coli and Salmonella, respectively. Combining the prevalence and severity of symptoms, plant foods were far more harmful to Americans than poultry was, let alone even more harmless sources like beef, dairy, and eggs. More recently, this month there was a major recall of romaine lettuce products containing E. coli, and the homepage at currently displays a picture warning about Salmonella in alfalfa sprouts.

Were the spinach, peanuts, lettuce, and sprouts responsible for these outbreaks heated long enough and at high enough temperature to kill off bacteria? Of course not -- then they would no longer count as "fresh," the euphemism for "raw" in the context of non-animal vs. animal products. Eating deep-fried alfalfa sprouts would make you look like a weirdo, not the eco-friendly saint that you want to be.

As the numbers show, food poisoning is somewhat rare, with fewer than 1 in 10,000 people affected, although unrecognized cases would drive that estimate up. But if we do consider that rate and the average severity of symptoms to be bad enough that "something must be done," we should remember who the real culprits are. Contrary to vegetarian propaganda, plant foods -- especially those "fresh" kinds we're supposed to eat more of -- are the worst offenders.


  1. And I didn't think plants could give you food poisoning. Makes me glad I switched to very low carb.


  2. Steve Johnson5/29/10, 12:55 AM

    Not to defend plants but aren't most cases of food poisoning from plants caused by animal farm runoff?

    This being an issue I basically ignore I could very well be misinformed.

  3. Many fruits and vegetables become contaminated by soil residue (usually tainted by animal feces). Melons, spinach and sprouts are prone.

    I don't understand how it is people get sick from meat.

    Cooking does serve a useful function...

  4. Not to mention that all plants are naturally toxic to one extent or another. Cooking usually (but not always) cuts down on the amount of toxins.

  5. British Foreign Office has always told travellers to avoid the local water, salad and raw fruit/veg.

    You can eat steak that is practically still raw. But undercooked mince can be pretty nasty.

  6. Steve Johnson5/30/10, 12:21 AM


    I think that's more from the hygiene standards of the local food prep than from anything inherent about veg.

    All raw food is dangerous when the people who prepare it aren't so stringent about hand washing; veg are served raw, meat generally isn't.

  7. Plants are fed by animal feces. Plants may become contaminated by artificial fertilizers, pesticides etc but not of that has to do with animal feces directly, but with the crap that gets mixed into the run off with animal feces.

  8. Steve, my point exactly. Cooking and washing the food properly will cut most food poisoning situations - the only way you'll get something is if it the meat has 'cyst' infections, or it's been cooked, frozen, reheated then refrozen again.


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