Home > Eating Food > Leafy Greens: The Silent Killer (Some Vindication For Raw Milk)

Leafy Greens: The Silent Killer (Some Vindication For Raw Milk)

What food causes the most bacterial illness according to the CDC? Is it eggs? No.  How about tuna?  Try again.  Oysters? Not even close.  In fact, it is leafy greens – that’s right, the same that you eat in almost every salad.

Last week I posted about raw milk and quoted some figures about the number of illnesses arising from its consumption.  Ultimately, these figures were not particularly conclusive because there was no proper frame of reference, i.e., no comparison with other foodstuffs to indicate a high or low level of illness.

Well, now I have those numbers, thanks to Squid Ink and their recent classy article “The 10 Foods Most Likely To Make You Barf.”  These numbers are based on reports to the CDC of illnesses ranging from temporary gastrointestinal distress to long-term disability and death, from 1990 to the present.  Unfortunately they are not broken out into any of these categories.  Likewise, these figures are obviously dependent on illnesses being reported to physicians and in turn to the CDC, which does not happen in all cases (although hopefully in the most serious ones).  These figures are said to account for about 40% of all food-borne outbreaks during the relevant time period.

1. Leafy greens: 363 outbreaks involving 13,568 reported cases of illness
2. Eggs: 352 outbreaks involving 11,163 reported cases of illness
3. Tuna: 268 outbreaks involving 2341 reported cases of illness
4. Oysters: 132 outbreaks involving 3409 reported cases of illness
5. Potatoes: 108 outbreaks involving 3659 reported cases of illness
6. Cheese: 83 outbreaks involving 2761 reported cases of illness
7. Ice cream: 74 outbreaks involving 2594 reported cases of illness
8. Tomatoes: 31 outbreaks involving 3292 reported cases of illness
9. Sprouts: 31 outbreaks involving 2022 reported cases of illness
10. Berries: 25 outbreaks involving 3397 reported cases of illness

By way of comparison, raw milk has been reported to have caused 1,614 illnesses during the period from 1998 to 2008 (including 187 hospitilizations and 2 deaths).   As the keen reader will observe, raw milk is linked to fewer illnesses than any of the foods on the list above.  Of course, the raw milk data only goes back to 1998, not 1990 – which gives the other foods an extra 8 years worth of illness-inducing.  Additionally, the numbers may be somewhat deceiving to the extent the food items on the list are sold in much higher quantities than raw milk (for example, the ratio of “total eggs sold” to “eggs causing illness” may indicate that a much smaller percentage of those eggs are in fact illness-inducing, even though the number of illnesses looks daunting on paper).

Okay, so these numbers aren’t particularly conclusive either.  Without more data, it is impossible even for a blog with flexible  journalistic standards to state that raw milk is any more or less likely to get you sick than the other foods on this list.  But the takeaway, hopefully, is the following:  There are many foods that cause a risk of bacterial infection, many of which you probably consume on a daily basis (and/or feed to your children).  Does that mean you should avoid all these foods?  Well, you probably won’t do that.  But the numbers help to offer some perspective  – namely, that raw milk is not some bacterial boogeyman that must be outlawed to avert a public health crisis.  And that politicians who claim a grave concern over the looming threat of raw milk consumption may, possibly, have further unspoken motivation to prevent the sale of raw milk.

  1. cj
    June 30, 2010 at 4:09 PM

    “And that politicians who claim a grave concern over the looming threat of raw milk consumption may, possibly, have further unspoken motivation to prevent the sale of raw milk.”


  2. June 21, 2010 at 5:52 PM

    There will be no defending of vegetables on this blog!

  3. Michelle
    June 18, 2010 at 12:06 PM

    In defense of leafy greens, can I just say that they get contaminated by manure runoff from neighboring cow farms and CAFOs? Just sayin!

  4. June 14, 2010 at 5:00 PM

    Potatoes are surprisingly high on that list. Huh.

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