Macleans reports that contrary to popular belief, vegetables and fruit — not chicken and eggs — are the top causes of large salmonella outbreaks, according to a U.S. study. And produce-related outbreaks tend to be larger than poultry-related outbreaks and sicken more people.
The analysis by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in Washington, D.C., showed that contaminated tomatoes, sprouts and other produce made 28,315 Americans sick during 554 outbreaks from 1990 to 2003. On the other hand, chicken made 14,729 people sick in 476 outbreaks and eggs were responsible for 10,847 illnesses from 329 outbreaks.

From 1990 to 2001, poultry accounted for 121 salmonella outbreaks and produce accounted for 80. But in 2002/03, produce accounted for 31 salmonella outbreaks and poultry accounted for 29. Although produce outbreaks were responsible for the most illnesses, seafood was responsible for more outbreaks (899) than any other food, but only 9,312 illnesses.
Salmonella isn’t the only pathogen that ends up on produce. In 2003, green onions in salsa from a Pennsylvania ChiChi’s restaurant transmitted hepatitis A to 555 people, killing three. Also that year, E. coli on a bagged salad mix sickened more than 50 restaurant patrons in the San Diego area. Late last year in Kingston, Ont., residents were warned not to eat bean sprouts when they were suspected of causing food poisoning.
The CSPI’s database only includes outbreaks in which both the food and the cause of the poisoning were identified, so its data represent only a fraction of the total burden of foodborne illnesses.
“Fresh fruits and vegetables are at the centre of a healthy diet, so it’s critical that steps are taken to improve their safety,” says CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal in a statement.