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The #1 Food That Causes Foodborne Illness, According to Experts

New research suggests that the foods most likely to fail to meet food safety standards are fresh fruits and vegetables.

Every few weeks it seems we hear about a Salmonella or Listeria outbreak tied to a slew of food products that came from one or two big distributors or even conventional farms. Oftentimes the source of the foodborne pathogens and other gastrointestinal irritants is one of the healthiest foods you can buy in the grocery store: fresh fruits and vegetables.

The most recent Salmonella outbreak, which has now been linked to 869 cases and 116 hospitalizations across 47 states, spread from onions widely distributed by brand names including Thomson Premium, TLC Thomson International, Kroger, Food Lion, and Onions 52. And recent research from food safety experts showed that fruits and vegetables consistently test as non-compliant, meaning they fail to meet basic food safety standards.

The study was conducted by the Singapore Food Agency (SFA), which showed that from January to June, 87.5% of imported fruits and vegetables passed the tests while all other categories of imported food assessed had passing rates of 95% and above.

While the difference in the rates appears to be marginal, it does lend some explanation as to why fruits and vegetables are so often the subjects of massive food recalls in the United States. Remember the multi-state outbreak of E.coli caused by romaine lettuce that happened earlier this year? How about the bouts of Listeria and Salmonella that have been linked to cantaloupe over the past decade?

Foodborne illness isn't just caused by E. coli, Listeria, and Salmonella, chemicals and toxins are also to blame. In Singapore, for example, there were five gastroenteritis outbreaks in the first half of the year along with 16 food recalls largely due to foods that had been tainted with chemicals and allergens—which is significant as the country imports more than 90% of its food.

While it's unclear whether or not researchers at SFA were examining fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S., their findings are applicable to produce that's cultivated and distributed in this country and in others. The fruits and vegetables that fell short of SFA's standards had levels of microbiological, chemical, or pesticide residues that surpassed the respective limits considered safe for human health. In the U.S., where 1.1 billion pesticides are used on crops each year, it's believed that as many as 90% of Americans have pesticides in their bodies.

This isn't to say that you should avoid eating fresh fruits and vegetables, but rather a reminder to thoroughly rinse and scrub fresh fruits and vegetables before eating them to help rid of any pesticide residue. In some cases, cooking them could kill potentially harmful bacteria. If you can buy organic, that's even better as pesticides used are sourced from natural substances as opposed to synthetic ones and often in smaller doses.

Cheyenne Buckingham
Cheyenne Buckingham is the news editor of Read more about Cheyenne