An analysis of more than 33,000 cases of food-borne illness shows that ground beef and chicken have caused more hospitalizations than other meats.
The report by the Center for Science in Public Interest says chicken nuggets, ham and sausage pose the lowest risk of food-borne illness.
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.
After ground beef and chicken, CSPI categorized turkey and steak as "high risk" and deli meat, pork, roast beef and beef or pork barbecue as "medium risk."
Salmonella and E. coli, pathogens that contaminate meat and poultry during slaughter and processing, accounted for a third of the illnesses surveyed. Clostridium perfringens, a lesser-known pathogen that usually grows after processing when foods are left at improper temperatures for too long by consumers or food establishments, accounted for another third.
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 from 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.
According to the report, listeria, salmonella and E. coli required the most hospitalizations.
The group noted that the data is incomplete because so many food-borne illnesses are not reported or tracked. The CDC estimates that as many as 48 million Americans get sick from food poisoning each year.
To reduce food-borne 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.
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