The 10 Riskiest Foods Really Aren’t

October 08, 2009

The 10 Riskiest Foods Really Aren’t

With a fundamental interest in public advocacy, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) just reported on the top ten riskiest foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The 10 ‘featured’ foods, many popular and healthy staples of the American diet, according to the report, accounted for nearly 40% of all foodborne illness outbreaks from 1990 to 2006. It is important to note that although not contained in most of the headlines or television reports, the foods reviewed were only those under the FDA’s jurisdiction; foods like meat and poultry (which have had huge food safety product recalls due to E.coli and Salmonella) were not considered. The reason? The United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is responsible for records associated with these products. Hardly bulletproof substance for a “top ten” list.


CSPI’s list in descending order: leafy greens, eggs, tuna, oysters, potatoes, cheese, ice cream, tomatoes, sprouts and berries.


We at The Lempert Report and are convinced that consumers will change or rethink their eating habits based on the media frenzy now surrounding these foods. Which is unfortunate. This information has already and will cause great confusion to the general population. Looking back to the 2006 E.coli contaminated bagged spinach outbreaks, sales dropped by five percent and a staggering twenty five percent the following year; and have never rebounded fully. We are betting this report will have a similar affect on the foods listed in the misleading CSPI report and it is irresponsible both to the consumer and to the food industry.


Remember, this report reviewed data dating back to 1990; over the past 20 years there has been much improvement in food safety science and manufacturing and clearly those improvements must be considered and applauded. Another problem: some data used focused on single outbreaks not primarily linked to the food in question – for example, most of the ice cream illnesses were due to homemade ice cream made with raw eggs; rather than ice cream sold in a supermarket.. Caroline Smith DeWaal, the food safety director for CSPI commented that this was the cause for 75 percent of the ice cream illnesses reported. Clearly singling out ice cream as the culprit doesn’t seem fair, and causes unnecessary consumer confusion. The National Milk Producers Federation, and the US Potato Board (potato illnesses were linked to potato salad, therefore cross contamination and improper at home food safety practices most likely culprit…) felt the data was at the very least misleading. (and we must agree.) It is a shame this report has warranted some variation of the headline “Healthy Foods Unsafe” as most consumers don’t have nor take the time to explore articles beyond basic browsing.


CSPI says that this report was intended as a review of our food safety system, not exactly for ‘consumer use.’ Smith DeWaal commented on ABC News, “this list is most important to scientist and the regulators and policy experts that work on food safety, CSPI is not advising consumers to make any changes in eating habits.” So why then did CSPI release it to the general consumer press? Or giving interviews on consumer media?


So, once again the bailout falls to the supermarket to explain, keep shoppers from panicking and to encourage them to continue to consume many of these healthy foods:

Post prominent signs in store outlining clear at home food safety instructions 
Reinforce proper in store or manufacturing safety procedures and relate these efforts to your customers. 
Include extra safety and handling instructions on labels or update signs in store to help draw attention to food safety issues. 
Encourage customers to continue to practice proper food safety at home. Frequent hand washing with soap and water, and careful handling of raw meat, poultry, eggs, etc. should be reinforced.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the CSPI’s primary data source, estimates that foodborne illness affects 76 million Americans each year. Illnesses range from temporary gastrointestinal distress to long-term disability and even death. Over 1,500 separate, definable outbreaks were linked to the top ten foods highlighted in the report, with almost 50,000 illnesses reported. CDC’s data represents the best available, but the majority of people rarely see a doctor to treat foodborne illnesses, thus a substantial number of cases fall under the radar.





CSPI’s Full Study: