​Are You Gonna Eat That? Why Disease-Proofing Your Diet Is So Hard

Photographer: Grove Pashley/Getty Images

A company that supplies meat to McDonald’s restaurants in China recalled its beef, chicken and pork yesterday after accusations that it was repackaging old meat as new.

The president of the company, OSI Group LLC, called problems at its Chinese operations “absolutely inconsistent with our internal requirements,” Bloomberg News reported today. The company will bring more stringent oversight to the unit.

Although no illnesses have been reported, and the recall happened half a world away from American stomachs, the episode is an uncomfortable reminder that most of our food comes to us across, sometimes, a thousands-of-miles-long chain of blind trust.

More than 9.6 million people become sick every year with some kind of major foodborne bug, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a 2013 paper, CDC researchers studied nearly 4,600 outbreaks and divvied up the food supply into 17 major ingredients. Between 1998 and 2008, their period of study, they estimated that in addition to those who became sick, more than 57,000 people a year were hospitalized, and about 1,450 died.

What can diners do to reduce their risk of ingesting illness-causing bacteria, viruses or chemicals picked up along the way? Besides following, and hoping others follow, guidelines for preparing food safely.

They can check up on what kinds of food may be carrying disease-causing microbes. The CDC epidemiologists ranked the 17 foods based on the estimated frequency with which they can be blamed for illness, hospitalizations and deaths.

Fortunately for Big Mac fans, beef doesn’t make the top of the lists.

Produce does. Fruits, vegetables and other healthy fare made up 46 percent of illnesses, according to the research. This graphic, from the 2013 paper, shows which foods are most responsible for the first two categories, illnesses and hospitalizations. Note that leafy vegetables, dairy products, fruits and nuts and vine-stalk vegetables (such as tomatoes and cucumbers) -- exactly the things that the doctors say we should eat to stay healthy -- are the most frequent carriers of illness. The same foods, their order reshuffled, are responsible for the most hospitalizations.

This chart shows the minimum, most probable, and maximum estimates of the annual number of foodborne illnesses and hospitalizations, attributed to key foods, in U.S. from 1998–2008. Source: CDC/Emerging Infectious Diseases March 2013

This chart shows the minimum, most probable, and maximum estimates of the annual number of foodborne illnesses and hospitalizations, attributed to key foods, in U.S. from 1998–2008. Source: CDC/Emerging Infectious Diseases March 2013

Pathogens in poultry killed more people than any other food class, with 19 percent of the total. The second most common carrier -- the paper doesn't study where the contamination originally came from -- was dairy products.

The foods with fewest deaths attributed to them are fungi, crustaceans and “oil-sugars,” which mercifully puts candy on the safe list.

The CDC scientists cautioned against building a diet to minimize food poisoning: “The risk for foodborne illness is just one part of the risk-benefit equation for foods; other factors, such as the health benefits of consuming a diet high in fruits and vegetables, must also be considered.”

Or, as the CDC put it more bluntly in a website Q&A:

"Does this mean I should not eat produce and poultry?

"No, that is not the message from this paper."

That's reassuring for the mushroom-averse. Still, the work is a reminder of how many times a day we may be rolling the dice.

Nothing is ever simple, is it.

More by Eric Roston (@eroston on Twitter):

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