Risky Food--Leafy Greens and Tuna?

Dean Reynolds is a CBS News Correspondent based in Chicago.

Just as all of us in Chicago were beginning to recover from the city's rejection by the International Olympic Committeecomes news that is even harder to swallow:

"Leafy greens, eggs and tuna are on the top of a list of the 10 riskiest foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration," according to a release by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

As we mull our menu selection for lunch, try a forkful of this information: Between 1990 and 2006, The Center for Science in the Public Interest used data collected from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as other sources to identify 363 outbreaks linked to iceberg lettuce, romaine lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens "variously contaminated with E. coli, Norovirus or Salmonella." This caused at least 13,568 people get sick. Possible culprits in the contamination include the old standard -- manure, plus contaminated irrigation water and poor handling practices, according to the CSPI. For those of us who do not routinely sprinkle our salads with flecks of manure, this is a cause for concern.

Over the same time frame, the CSPI found a linkage between eggs, 352 outbreaks and 11,163 illnesses thanks to that E. coli thing. Tuna? Some 268 outbreaks and 2,341 illnesses were found. Over the past 17 years of research the CSPI also noted that despite what it calls a "limited consumption," oysters could be linked to 132 outbreaks causing 3,409 illnesses. The center doesn't explain its view that consumption of oysters is limited but I'm betting that any food with the consistency of phlegm usually starts off with a disadvantage in the food-consuming sweepstakes.

Potatoes, yes even potatoes, were linked to 108 outbreaks and 3,659 illnesses. Rounding out the top (or bottom) ten are cheese, ice cream, tomatoes, sprouts and berries. And keep in mind, most food-borne illnesses are never reported, so the center says this is the tip of the iceberg (lettuce.)

It makes one think of what could possibly be a safe lunch. Two slices of white bread with nothing between them?

And all of this comes on the heels of the disturbing New York Times expose on the ground beef industry, which should have been the biggest boost for a vegetarian lifestyle in history were it not for this new study I'm writing about that tells us you can get really, really sick from vegetables too.

I should point out that the CSPI release says this is no reason to forgo the occasional salad Nicoise, but because so many of these supposedly healthy foods are supposedly being regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, the Senate must follow the House and pass legislation pending now that would reform food safety laws.

Out here in the Midwest, farmers grow a lot of leafy vegetables. So this report will probably be met with considerable consternation, if not outright opposition to implementation of more federal regulation. Besmirching tuna as a credible edible is also probably going to generate some blowback from the fishing industry.

But the CSPI says these outbreaks "give the best evidence of where and when the food safety system is failing to protect the public." It would seem to suggest that the failure is glaring and widespread.

Think about that the next time you have a yen for tuna salad. Me? I've lost my appetite.

  • Dean Reynolds

    Dean Reynolds is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Chicago.