10 Risky Recalled Foods You Should Know About
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10 Risky Recalled Foods You Should Know About

Jun 15, 2023

Consumer Reports ranks foods linked to the most serious recalls and disease outbreaks in recent years and offers advice on how to stay safe

Sherie Jenkins first started feeling sick—cramping, diarrhea, fever, muscle aches—a day after eating a premade sandwich she bought from a grocery store near her home in Rockledge, Fla. After a week of worsening symptoms and an emergency room visit, she received a diagnosis of sepsis, a life-threatening infection, and was hospitalized for several days.

Eventually, public health officials determined that her illness was caused by salmonella, a bacteria frequently tied to food poisoning, and traced it to the raw onion in her sandwich, according to a lawsuit that she filed in February 2022 against the supplier of those onions, ProSource, and that was settled out of court last August. The company's onions, part of a 2021 recall of about 40 million pounds, were ultimately linked to more than 1,000 illnesses in 39 states.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million people each year fall ill from salmonella, listeria, E. coli, or other bacteria or viruses in food. Most recover on their own after a few unpleasant days. But nearly 130,000 people are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne illness annually. Children under the age of 5, older people, and those who are pregnant or have a weakened immune system are at greatest risk.

To investigate the foods most often linked to those types of illnesses, Consumer Reports’ food safety experts looked at food recalls and foodborne disease outbreaks from 2017 through 2022, analyzing data from the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Department of Agriculture.

They focused on widely consumed foods that were recalled because of bacterial contamination (not because of allergens or extraneous materials like the plastic particles that sometimes get into foods). They ranked the recalls mainly on how many people died or became ill, as well as how widespread the outbreaks were, how many times a food was recalled, and the total amount of food recalled. Read more about how CR did its analysis (PDF).

Some of the foods that rose to the top of CR's analysis—such as bagged salads, poultry products, and deli meats—might not surprise you much. But others may give you pause. Onions? Peaches? Flour?

Below, we list the 10 foods that made our list and explain why each ended up there. We also explain what industry and regulators are doing to address the problems and, most importantly, what you can do to stay safe.

"We aren't saying people need to avoid these foods entirely," says Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at CR, who led the analysis. "After all, these foods are all usually safe, and many of them are in fact important parts of a healthy diet." Instead, he says, the list underscores the "importance of following best food safety practices with all of your foods, including knowing how to track, and respond, to food recalls when they happen."

The cards below show the 10 foods in rank order. To use the chart, roll over the image of a food and the card will flip to show details. Note that the numbers of illnesses and deaths shown reflect only those that are linked to specific events. And the amounts of food involved is not always complete because although the USDA, which regulates meat and poultry, always makes that information available, the FDA, which regulates most other foods, does not.

Products recalled: Romaine lettuce and bagged saladsReason: E. coli, listeriaWhy they’re risky: Outbreaks traced to leafy greens were responsible for the most deaths in our analysis, and the second largest number of recalls and outbreaks—50, in fact, compared with 30 for chicken, turkey, and ground beef combined.

A likely culprit: contaminated water used to irrigate the fields in California and Arizona, where most of the lettuce is grown in the U.S., Ronholm says. Some fields are near cattle feedlots, and the animals can carry particularly deadly strains of E. coli, such as O157:H7, in their intestines. Manure containing the bacteria can seep into irrigation water, and contaminate the crops.

Even if a batch of lettuce comes into the processing plant free of harmful bacteria, it may still become contaminated. Packaged salad greens are processed at a relatively small number of facilities around the country, so contamination in a single one can quickly spread to dozens of different products and millions of cases, says Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at CR.

That is what likely happened, he says, with two massive recalls in 2021, including one by Dole involving 76 products and another by Fresh Express of more than 100 products. "Concentration in the salad processing industry means a greater chance of contamination and larger outbreaks when they happen," Hansen says.

Listeria poses a special risk. The bacteria thrive in damp, cold environments, like refrigerators and food processing plants, and it is notoriously hard to kill, says James E. Rogers, PhD, director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports. And once bacteria takes hold on machinery, it can easily spread as food moves through the processing plant.

Finally, salad greens are normally eaten raw. "Heating kills bacteria, but most people, understandably, don't want to cook their lettuce," Rogers says.

What you can do: Consider buying whole-head lettuce instead of bagged or boxed. Remove the outer leaves, which is where bacteria often lurks, Rogers says. Or opt for hydroponic and greenhouse-grown lettuce if you can, because they are less likely to come in contact with animal droppings. In addition, favor cooked greens—such as kale, collards, or Swiss chard—over raw ones, especially if you are at high risk for complications of food poisoning or live with someone who is, including people who are immunocompromised, pregnant, or elderly.

Two caveats: Don't assume that organically grown produce, or other foods, are less likely to be recalled because of bacterial contamination than conventionally grown foods. In fact, some of the recalled greens were organically grown. And while it's a good idea to wash fruits and vegetables, that is mostly to remove dirt and some pesticides; it might not do much for bacteria.

Products recalled: Sausage, salami, ham, lunch meats, sliced cheeses, and soft cheeses, such as brie and queso fresco Reason: ListeriaWhy they’re risky: Listeria flourishes even in the cold temperatures of deli cases and refrigerated storage rooms. In addition, just think of all the times the sliced cold cuts or cheeses you buy at a deli counter are touched by someone's hands, including each time a chunk of cheddar or salami goes back and forth between the case and slicer. If one package of meat or cheese contains bacteria, it can spread to others. Wearing gloves helps, but not if they aren't changed between handling. And the slicer itself, or the countertop, can be contaminated, too, further spreading bacteria.

And listeria is particularly nasty: Ninety percent of people infected with it end up being hospitalized. In pregnant people, an infection can lead to miscarriages and stillbirths.

What you can do: Again, it's not practical to cook your cold cuts or cheese. So Rogers suggests purchasing prepackaged deli meats and cheeses because some research suggests that they may be less likely to lead to illness from listeria infection.

Better yet: Avoid cold cuts entirely, or at least sharply limit how often you consume them. In addition to the high risk of food poisoning that they pose, they are often nutritional nightmares packed with sodium. To top it off, they are considered processed meats, and regularly eating just a small amount increases your risk of cancer and is linked to other health problems, says Amy Keating, RD, a CR nutritionist. Again, high-risk individuals—the same group as for leafy greens—should steer clear of cold cuts, even prepackaged ones.

People at high risk for foodborne illness should consider avoiding cheeses sliced at the deli too, and buy prepackaged instead. It's also important for them to avoid cheeses made with raw milk, and soft cheeses such as brie, queso fresco, and gorgonzola. They are safer if made with pasteurized milk, but their high moisture and low acid content support the growth of listeria.

Products recalled: Packaged ground beef Reason: E. coli and salmonella Why it's risky: The same deadly strains of E. coli that can get from feedlots and pastures onto lettuce can, of course, also get into beef itself, transferring from a cow's gut to the meat during slaughter. Those particular strains, called Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, or STEC, are so dangerous that the USDA classifies them as adulterants in beef, meaning that manufacturers must recall meat that could be contaminated even if no illnesses are clearly linked to it.

"Ground beef contaminated with any STEC bacteria should not be sold, period," Rogers says. Yet the bacteria is still sometimes found in ground beef, including a sample tested by CR last year. After that finding, CR immediately alerted the USDA, triggering a recall of more than 28,000 pounds of the meat.

Another, even more common, concern in ground meat: salmonella. Of the 643 illnesses linked to ground beef in CR's analysis, 416 were attributed to this bacteria.

While both ground meat and whole cuts, like steak, can be contaminated, "there's a greater risk with ground beef because the meat can come from many animals and is more processed during grinding, so bacteria from just one source can spread widely in the final product," Rogers says.

In addition, on whole cuts of meat the bacteria are usually on the surface where they are easily killed when cooked properly. But in ground meat the bacteria can be mixed throughout, which means you need to make sure they are cooked all the way through.

What you can do: One key step is keeping bacteria from spreading. In the grocery store, that means putting meat in separate, disposable bags. Once home, store it in a bag or bowl in the fridge. Or freeze it, tightly sealed, in its original package or repackaged.

Think containment when preparing meals, too. Have one cutting board for meat, another for produce. Wash knives used on meat before cutting other foods. And wash your hands in hot soapy water before and after you touch meat. Clean up any spills of meat juices with a paper towel or cleaning wipe, not a sponge, and immediately throw it away.

Another basic principle is temperature management. That starts by keeping meat cold: Bacteria levels can double in as little as 20 minutes between 40° F and 140° F. So thaw frozen meat in the refrigerator, don't take it out until just before you cook, and refrigerate leftovers promptly. Cooked food shouldn't be left out longer than 2 hours—1 hour if you’re outside and the temperature is 90° F or higher.

When cooking, make sure the meat gets hot enough to kill bacteria. For ground beef and pork, that's 160° F, and for whole cuts, it's 145° F. And no, you can't tell by looking or touching. Instead, invest in a good meat thermometer.

Products recalled: Red, sweet, and white onionsReason: SalmonellaWhy they’re risky: Here's the first big surprise in our list. How did they end up here? Mostly because of two very large recalls of red, white, and yellow onions due to salmonella in 2020 and 2021, including the one that hospitalized Sherie Jenkins, in Florida. Together, onions from both recalls sickened 2,167 people and hospitalized 427.

An FDA investigation suggests that contaminated irrigation water was the most likely cause here, too, though it also identified livestock on nearby land and droppings from birds and other wild animals as possible sources. The FDA also said it found signs of animals and pests in some of the onion packing houses and "food contact surfaces, which had not been inspected, maintained, cleaned, or sanitized as frequently as necessary."

What you can do: Onions are often cooked, which kills the bacteria. And when choosing onions, avoid those that are bruised, because bacteria can more likely enter damaged food. Refrigeration isn't needed, but do keep them in a well-ventilated area away from the sun. And never wash onions in advance: The moisture can make them rot faster. Wash them just before you’re going to use them.

Products recalled: Chicken and turkey, including ground, whole, and parts Reason: SalmonellaWhy they’re risky: With poultry, it's not just the ground versions you need to worry about but also the parts and whole birds. Salmonella is particularly widespread in chicken and turkey, in part because defeathering them can spread the bacteria, and because of the additional handling required to cut the birds into parts, Rogers says. The crowded and filthy conditions in which they are often raised don't help, either. And poultry producers can legally sell their product even if they know it may contain salmonella. For example, the USDA allows salmonella in up to 9.8 percent of whole chickens it tests at a processing plant, 15.4 percent of chicken parts, and 25 percent of ground chicken.

CR's tests last year confirm the threat posed by salmonella in chicken, especially in ground chicken: We found it in 23 of the 75 samples we tested—almost a third.

What you can do: All the steps you take while shopping, storing, and preparing ground beef apply to poultry, too, with a few extra precautions. For one, chicken and turkey—ground, whole, and parts—should be cooked to 165° F. For another, many people routinely rinse their chicken before cooking. That's a bad idea, Rogers says: Washing is far more likely to spread salmonella around the sink and counter than it is remove bacteria from the birds.

Products recalled: Precut cantaloupe, honeydew, and watermelon; whole cantaloupes, papayas, and peachesReason: SalmonellaWhy they’re risky: For peaches, the contamination appears to stem from animal feedlots. For example, in its investigation of a 2020 recall of nearly 113 million pounds of that fruit, the FDA found that the peach orchards were near feedlots, and some of those orchards tested positive for salmonella strains similar to those previously found in cattle and poultry. In this case though, it might not have been in the irrigation water, but in dust and soil contaminated with the bacteria carried by wind and deposited on crops.

For cantaloupes and other melons, problems seem to emerge most often when the fruits are cut into cubes or balls before selling. "When you cut into produce, you increase the risk of transferring bacteria that may be on its surface into its flesh," Rogers says. "In commercial facilities, with fruits and vegetables processed in one place, it can create opportunities for cross contamination."

For papayas, the risk seems most acute with fruits imported from Mexico, reflecting the difficulty the FDA can have inspecting production outside the U.S.

And a common risk for all fruits: They are typically eaten raw, so bacteria won't be killed by cooking.

What you can do: Generally, you’re best off avoiding precut fruit, Rogers says, especially if you are at high risk for complications from foodborne illness. Instead, buy whole fruit and cut it up yourself at home. When choosing whole fruits, avoid bruised or damaged ones. And washing helps primarily to remove dirt and some pesticides, not bacteria, but it's still worth doing.

Products recalled: Uncooked flour; cookie, brownie, cake, and pancake mixes; and premade cake batterReason: E. coli and salmonellaWhy it's risky: As wheat grows in fields, it can become contaminated with E. coli or salmonella not only from nearby farms where livestock is raised but also from wild animal droppings, notably deer and birds, says CR's Rogers. The milling process that turns grains into flour does not kill either pathogen. Only cooking them as part of normal food preparation will make them safe.

Two recalls were responsible for all the reported illnesses over the six years we looked at: In 2019, a type of STEC E. coli linked to cookie and brownie mixes led to an outbreak that sickened 21 people in nine states, and a 2021 outbreak linked to cake mixes sickened 16 people in 12 states.

What you can do: Tempting as it may be, do not eat raw homemade dough or batter—not even a little taste. That protects you not only from any bacteria in the flour but also from salmonella that could be in raw eggs.

In addition, Rogers recommends keeping flour and baking mixes that include flour away from all ready-to-eat foods like fresh produce, both when buying it in the supermarket and while storing it at home. Flour is light and powdery, and can easily fly around in your kitchen and come into contact with counters, cutting boards, plates, and the like. Wash these—as well as your hands—in hot, soapy water after use.

No matter how vigilant you are in choosing which foods to buy, you may still sometimes end up with contaminated food. That's why it's important to stay abreast of food recalls.

One good way: Sign up for CR's Food Safety Alert service. We’ll text you whenever we learn of a major food recall or safety alert. You can also sign up for food recall alerts directly from the FDA and from the USDA.

Some supermarkets also notify customers when foods they’ve purchased are recalled. For example, Costco contacts members via email, text, or phone, sometimes even a day or two before the recall is announced by the FDA or USDA. Craig Wilson, vice president at Costco, says the company can move more quickly than a federal agency because it hears directly from its supplier. And Wegmans says it alerts its Shopper's Club members via email, as does Whole Foods for those who purchased groceries online or who’ve used their Amazon Prime membership when buying groceries.

"No one involved in growing, selling, and regulating food wants people to get sick," Ronholm says, "but it's a huge, complex world with competing interests and priorities, so improvements are hard to come by." Still, he says, some partial solutions are well-understood and agreed-upon, and some progress is being made.

Here are several important ones.

That means, mostly, the ability to inspect and monitor farms and feedlots, more authority to address critical risk factors, and enhanced ability to track tainted food, Ronholm says.

According to a February 2023 letter by Sen. Richard Durbin, D.-Ill., to the FDA commissioner, Robert Califf, MD, there are more than 81,000 registered food facilities in the U.S. All of these fall under the FDA's jurisdiction, but the agency's inspections of those facilities is actually on the decline, from 10,635 in 2011 to 4,535, in 2021, a 60 percent drop, and Califf himself recently acknowledged that his agency needs to overhaul its approach to inspections.

Short of getting more inspectors and inspections—a tough sell given that Congress may be hesitant to provide more funding, Ronholm says—the FDA has tried to target its work, including more inspections of onions and papayas grown outside the U.S. Another partial solution: teaming up more with state regulators. Half of all food inspections are now done by states.

One positive development on poultry: The USDA proposed last year that certain serious strains of salmonella possibly be treated as adulterants in poultry, giving it more power to order recalls of contaminated chicken and turkey. The agency aims to reduce salmonella infections related to poultry by 25 percent.

Also encouraging, the FDA recently made progress on a long-awaited new tool that will make it easier to identify contaminated food. Called the Food Traceability Rule, it requires food producers, processors, packagers, distributors, supermarkets, and some restaurants to develop traceability plans that, among other things, assign a code to foods so that they can be tracked more efficiently. The rule goes into effect Jan. 20, 2026.

Each type of produce has its own industry, says Jennifer McEntire, PhD, chief of food safety and regulatory officer at the International Fresh Produce Association. And, of course, fruits and vegetables are a whole different animal from chicken and beef. But several of those industries are taking some steps to reduce foodborne illness.

For example, the Leafy Greens Marketing Associations in Arizona and California issued new guidelines governing how close farmers can plant crops to places where cattle are raised; in California, the organization also instituted new preharvest testing requirements. In some situations, "growers are treating water with sanitizers such as chlorine or peroxyacetic acid to kill bacteria such as E. coli," Ronholm says. And after recalls involving papayas grown in Mexico, the industry updated a decades-old guidance document, and translated it into Spanish for Mexican growers.

Some retailers—including Costco, Wegmans, and Whole Foods—are also taking steps to ensure the safety of the products they sell. All three have instituted programs that require their leafy green suppliers to test for harmful bacteria before products are shipped to their stores. Suppliers to Whole Foods must test the greens both in the field and in the processing plant, and Wegmans requires that the greens be tested for bacteria no more than four days before harvesting. Costco's testing requirements apply to bagged produce, including greens.

Lisa L. Gill

Lisa L. Gill is an award-winning investigative reporter. She has been at Consumer Reports since 2008, covering health and food safety—heavy metals in the food supply and foodborne illness—plus healthcare and prescription drug costs, medical debt, and credit scores. Lisa also testified before Congress and the Food and Drug Administration about her work on drug costs and drug safety. She lives in a DIY tiny home, where she gardens during the day and stargazes the Milky Way at night.

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