Chicken most likely to make you sicken, CDC illness data show

A new analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may have you rethinking some aspects of your healthy diet. 

The CDC investigated the causes of "outbreaks" in which two or more people get the same illness after eating a common food. Realizing that contaminated food is the cause of 9.4 million illnesses each year — and has been blamed for 5,760 separate outbreaks that resulted in 100,939 illnesses, 5,699 hospitalizations and 145 deaths from 2009 to 2015, the last year for which government statistics are available — the CDC decided to take a closer look.

No other food, it turns out, is quite as problematic as chicken  —  the heart-healthy alternative to red meat.

Though fish and dairy technically caused more "outbreaks," chicken sickened the most people — some 3,113 people over the study period, to be exact. Other seemingly healthy foods — pork and seeded vegetables — ranked second and third most common sources of foodborne illness, causing 2,670 and 2,572 illnesses, respectively.

It's enough to make you pine for Twinkies.

"Chicken is a reservoir for salmonella," explains Thomas Gremillion, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America. Though proper cooking can kill most salmonella strains, normal food preparation techniques — like using a sponge to clean up spills or rinsing your chicken in the sink — tend to spread the bug around your kitchen, he says. That can "cross-contaminate" your sink, cutting boards and vegetables.

Overall, three types of bacteria — listeria, salmonella, and Shiga toxin-producing E. coli — were responsible for 82 percent of all hospitalizations and deaths reported. 

To be sure, norovirus — not salmonella — is the most common foodborne ailment. However, this virus can infect pretty much any food. It is most often passed into raw and ready-to-eat foods by infected food service workers. (Don't eat at a restaurant where the waiter or cook doesn't wash after using the facilities. Believe me, you don't want to know more.)

The FDA and local health inspectors can crack down on restaurants that don't maintain high cleanliness standards. However, Gremillion says the government could do a lot more to make chicken safer to eat, like require bird vaccinations or shut down breeders that have high rates of salmonella.

"This CDC report shows that government inspectors and industry need to do more to protect consumers from unsafe chicken," says Gremillion. "Rather than focusing on schemes to boost industry profits — such as eliminating slaughterhouse line speed limits — we should be talking about why the U.S. lags so far behind other countries on issues like addressing salmonella contamination in poultry, and what can be done to avoid some of these illnesses and the havoc they wreak on families."

A spokesman for the National Chicken Council squawks at the Consumer Federation's criticism. "Outside of maybe the nuclear energy industry, the U.S. meat and poultry industry is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the United States -- to say otherwise is either disingenuous or represents a gross misunderstanding of how the industry operates," the spokesman says, citing recently "modernized poultry inspection systems" that have helped reduce salmonella on chicken parts by 20% over the past three years. "Given that Americans eat about 160 million servings of chicken every day, the vast majority of consumers are cooking and handling chicken properly and having a safe experience."