THE Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) has issued a report on the attribution of various foods to foodborne illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths between 1998 and 2008.
The report notes that contaminated produce accounted for the most foodborne illnesses (46%) over the 10-year period, that contaminated dairy products were responsible for the most hospitalizations (16%) and that contaminated meat and poultry were responsible for the most deaths (29%).
The estimates were drawn from 4,589 foodborne illness outbreaks.
Of importance, CDC cautioned that the findings should not cause consumers to avoid certain foods because foodborne pathogens can be killed through proper food handling and preparation and because a balanced and varied diet is necessary for a healthy lifestyle.
Caroline Smith DeWall, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, noted that one reason for the increase in sickness from dairy products is the rising enthusiasm for raw, unpasteurized milk and cheese. People who consume unpasteurized dairy products put themselves at great risk of Escherichia coli O157:H7 and salmonella, she said.
The Home Food Safety Program also responded to the report and supports CDC's position that the issue is not certain foods but at-home food handling and preparation.
The program is a collaboration between ConAgra Foods Inc. and the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, formerly the American Dietetic Assn. and the world's largest organization of food and nutrition professionals.
Although the CDC analysis found that produce caused the most foodborne illnesses and meat and poultry caused the most deaths from those illnesses, people still may consume produce, meat and poultry, academy spokesperson Rachel Begun said. Proper and safe food handling and preparation can protect people from foodborne illnesses and allow them to enjoy nutritious and tasty foods, she said.
One of the most important steps an individual can take to stay healthy, Begun said, is to wash hands "thoroughly" for 20 seconds with soap and warm water. Hand sanitizers also are good for reducing the spread of germs, "but research shows that soap and water are best," she said.
Begun offered the following advice.
* Properly wash all fresh fruits and vegetables -- whether they have a peel or not -- with cool tap water just before eating them or preparing them for a dish. After washing the produce, dry it using a clean cloth or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present.
* Cut away any bruised or damaged areas on fruits and vegetables before eating or preparing them for a dish. Remove and discard outer leaves on a head of lettuce.
* Cut all fruits and vegetables on a separate cutting board from the one used to cut raw meats and fish. Color-coded boards can help a food preparer remember which is which.
* Cook raw sprouts such as alfalfa and clover to reduce the risk of illness.
For meat and poultry:
* When buying and handling meat and poultry, always make sure the package has a "Safe Food Handling" label and is tightly wrapped. At the grocery store, select meat and poultry products at the end of the shopping trip, and bag them separately from other groceries, especially fruits and vegetables, to prevent cross-contamination.
* Store meat and poultry in the coldest part of the refrigerator, at 40 degrees F or lower. Use fresh, raw chicken within one to two days of purchase and fresh, raw meat within three to four days. Cooked, leftover meat and poultry should be consumed or frozen within three to four days.
* Wash hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds after handling raw meat and poultry. Use separate cutting boards for meat, poultry and fish.
* Frozen meat should be defrosted in the refrigerator or in the microwave using the defrost function; never defrost frozen products on the counter. Cook products that have been thawed immediately, and do not refreeze thawed meat and poultry.
* Use a food thermometer to ensure that meat and poultry are cooked to a safe internal temperature.
The CDC analysis is available at wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/19/3/11-1866_article.htm.
Additional information on safe food handling and preparation is available at www.homefoodsafety.org.
The Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics is committed to advancing the profession of dietetics through advocacy and research and to improving the health of Americans. More information, including on locating a nearby dietitian, is available at www.eatright.org.
ConAgra, based in Omaha, Neb., is the second-largest packaged food company in the U.S., and its brands, from Banquet and Healthy Choice to Marie Callender's and Peter Pan, can be found in 97% of American households.