10 Summer Foods Most Likely to Make You Sick
Nothing beats fresh, in-season produce and backyard barbecuing, but warm weather carries a higher risk of foodborne illnesses. Here's how not to fall victim to them.
One of the great things about summer is the food: fresh herbs from the garden, in-season produce, just-caught seafood. It sounds like a recipe for healthy dining, and it is—with one exception: Foodborne illnesses spike in the warm months.
“Bacteria multiply more quickly when it’s warmer,” says nutritionist Amy Gorin, RD, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area. That’s why soaring temperatures and perishable food aren’t the best mix, even though you’ll find plenty of both at barbecues, picnics, and campgrounds all summer long. “Preparing and eating food outdoors in the summer makes it more difficult to maintain proper safe handling food practices,” Gorin says.
Healthy … or deadly?
While things like spoiled dairy or rotten meat might be your first thought when it comes to food poisoning, chances are a lot better that the cause can be found in your crisper drawer. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost half of all foodborne disease outbreaks that occurred between 1998 and 2008 were caused by fresh produce. “If it grows outside, animals could have brushed against it, or it could have come into contact with dirt, a source of all kinds of bacteria,” says Libby Mills, RD, a Philadelphia-based nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “The bottom line is you have to wash your produce.” Read on for the foods safety experts say could put you at most risk.
Certain kinds of produce carry an even greater health risk. Topping the list of the foods that cause the most outbreaks of disease, according to CDC data, are leafy vegetables. The reason? One of the most common causes of food poisoning, the human norovirus, likes to hang out on greens like lettuce and spinach. The virus can survive on leaves for several days, and because those foods tend to be consumed raw, there’s no chance that cooking will kill the pathogens. The good news is, most cases of norovirus-induced food poisoning aren’t deadly. Make sure you know the 8 signs of food poisoning.
These tiny seedlings seem completely harmless and are a great addition to salads and wraps when you want to add a nutrient punch—just take care, says Gorin: “Sprouts can harbor Listeria and E. coli, which can multiply quickly as the plants grow. And sprouts are difficult to thoroughly clean.” For this reason, she says, it’s best to avoid them.
Honeydew, cantaloupe, and watermelon have a particularly bad rap when it comes to disease-causing pathogens like salmonella and Listeria. They grow on the ground so they come into contact with more germs; because the rind of most melons isn’t edible, not everyone remembers to wash them. Cantaloupe’s nubbly skin almost seems like it’s designed to trap bacteria. Slicing into a melon with a dirty rind can transfer those germs from the outside to the inside, says Gorin, so it’s important to wash them thoroughly, and use a clean knife and cutting board to avoid spreading contaminants. You’ll also want to refrigerate any cut fruit within two hours of slicing it (or one hour if it’s warmer than 90° F outside.) Here are some more surprising foods you had no idea could give you food poisoning.
Juicing is supposed to be the ultimate healthy practice, but fresh-squeezed varieties haven’t undergone pasteurization, the process that kills bacteria. That means any nasties that are on the fruit or vegetables used to make the juice can get transferred to the drink—and then to you. Keep an eye on labels to make sure what you’re drinking is safe. Unpasteurized juices are often sold in the refrigerated section. Don’t miss these food poisoning myths you can safely ignore.
Yes, chicken and turkey are the meats that cause the most deadly foodborne disease outbreaks—not beef. The Listeria bacteria tends to lurk inside poultry, particularly deli meats, which is why pregnant women are warned to avoid those cuts. To avoid contamination of Listeria and other bacteria found in raw poultry products, wash your hands after handling raw chicken or turkey, never rinse the meat before cooking it, and use a meat thermometer to make sure your meat is always cooked all the way through.
That old rule about never eating shellfish in a month that doesn’t have an R makes some sense when it comes to oysters. “Raw oysters pose a risk of vibriosis, a potentially deadly infection,” says Gorin. “Each year in the United States, about 80,000 people get vibriosis, and about 100 people die from it. The risk is much higher from May through October, when the water temperatures are warmer.” But seafood lovers don’t have to completely avoid these shellfish—just cook before consuming, which will kill those harmful pathogens. Check out the 9 things food poisoning experts never eat.
All those burgers you’re anticipating slapping on the grill may be harboring E. coli. As with poultry, the key is to wash your hands, cutting boards, counters, and utensils thoroughly after handling raw beef, and to make sure your burgers and steaks are thoroughly cooked (regrets to those who like their beef rare). High temperatures will destroy all the disease-causing bacteria in the meat, but safe internal temps vary depending on the type of meat and the cut. A meat thermometer should read 145° F for red meat and 160° F for ground meat, says Gorin. And avoid these mistakes almost everyone makes when cooking steak.
Some health gurus swear by this unpasteurized dairy product but, as with juices, pasteurization is key for killing bacteria in milk and anything made with it, including cheeses such queso fresco, blue-veined, feta, brie, and camembert. Otherwise, they may contain nasty bugs. Considering some of the other serious issues with raw milk, it’s best to stick with pasteurized milk products to be on the safe side.
There’s a reason people warn you not to eat raw cookie dough. Uncooked eggs may contain salmonella despite having no unusual odor or appearance. You probably aren’t shotgunning them raw or seriously undercooking your scrambled eggs, but be wary of doughs, batters, dressings, and drinks like eggnog and cocktails that use egg whites. Plus, never let egg-containing foods sit unrefrigerated for too long. Mayonnaise, for example, is pathogen-breeding territory when the weather’s warm, says Mills. “Moisture and protein is the perfect recipe for foodborne illness-causing microbes to grow.” Here are even more foods you should never eat raw.
Don’t play the odds
One in six Americans get sick from eating contaminated food every year, but you can avoid being one of them simply by paying attention to your food prep. Washing your produce before consuming it, and keep your hands, utensils, and any surface that touches food clean. Experts recommend having separate cutting boards and knives for meat, poultry, and seafood. Mills says it’s a smart idea to store proteins on a lower shelf in the refrigerator, in a dish that will catch any drips; this will help you avoid cross-contamination of other foods.
Cook meats thoroughly and to the recommended temperatures, and refrigerate anything you don’t eat within two hours; otherwise, bacteria can start to grow. Buffet-style spreads at outdoor parties can be risky, says Gorin, so take care to keep perishable food on ice or pack it up and refrigerate it after two hours. Summer’s no time to get sick. Watch out for these other common summer BBQ foods that can cause food poisoning.