A Seattle Times headline caught my eye on Wednesday, stating that leafy greens are the number one “riskiest” food item in terms of food-borne illness. I found that surprising, as you would expect most food-related illnesses to arise from improper handling of meat and dairy products.
The Times article was based on a “riskiest foods” list compiled by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a watchdog group that pushes for nutrition and food safety legislation. They compiled the list from their own Outbreak Alert! database, which contains data from outbreaks as far back as the early 1990s . The “riskiest list” was created by looking at the FDA-regulated foods with the largest number of outbreaks and reported cases. The key word here is “FDA-regulated.” The FDA regulates just about every food product–except meat.
Science of the Times’ own independent analysis (pdf) of CSPI’s data reveals that once USDA-regulated foods are included, five of six of the riskiest food groups are actually farm-raised animal products, with chicken at number one. In fact, the only vegetable making the top six is leafy greens. The other top contenders respectively are beef, eggs, lunch meat and pork. All together, USDA-regulated meat products accounted for over 68,000 cases of food-borne illness, compared to around 38,000 cases for the entire CSPI top ten list combined.
Naturally, food industry groups voiced complaints about the CSPI list. Based on the analysis presented here, it appears that the fisheries and dairy industry have a legitimate complaint, as foods like ice cream, cheese and tuna should not have been on the list to begin with.
CSPI really missed the mark with this list. Not only are they missing the point–that farm-raised animal products are to blame for the largest portion of food-borne illness and should be the focus of tighter regulation– but they are indirectly discouraging people from eating leafy greens.
Even with the risk of food-borne illness, leafy greens are an excellent source of fiber, vitamins and phytonutrients. Eating them regularly over the long-term may actually reduce the risk for a host of chronic illnesses, even if they present a short-term danger.
Can the same be said for chicken, eggs and beef?