You're still deathly afraid of even looking at a raw chicken for fear of coming down with an anus-ripping case of salmonella, aren't you? You're scrubbing your cutting boards with bleach, installing UV lights in your refrigerator, and snapping on double layers of latex gloves whenever you remove a breast from its soggy, meat-aisle diaper.
Well, we don't want to say that that fear is unfounded, but fruits, vegetables, and even milk are just as likely—if not more likely—to make you sick.
A new report from the Interagency Food Safety Analytics Collaboration (IFSAC)—a joint task force created by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the US Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA/FSIS), and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)—tallied outbreaks and illnesses resulting from common foodborne pathogens between 1998 and 2012. Chicken was hardly the worst culprit.
For salmonella alone, chicken was responsible for 2,648 illnesses and 114 outbreaks. By comparison, seeded vegetables caused 4,001 illnesses and 34 outbreaks. Sprouts by themselves caused 1,266 illnesses, while fruits caused 2,510. Vegetable row crops and other produce were fingered in 412 and 1,923 cases, respectively.
All told, the produce aisle was responsible for more than 10,000 cases of salmonella poisoning, while chicken was responsible for barely a quarter of that.
Of course, bad bacteria doesn't necessarily discriminate. Dairy—typically in the form of raw milk and cheese—was responsible for nearly 3,500 cases of campylobacter, which boasts the fun superpower of causing bloody dysentery in humans and abortions in sheep. Of all the land animals surveyed, pigs were easily the safest bet. Pork was responsible for barely 1,000 cases of salmonella, E. coli, campylobacter, and listeria combined.
Now, this doesn't necessarily mean that vegetables (or, for that matter, chickens) are inherently more dangerous than any other kind of food; the data from this report only suggests that these foods were implicated in foodborne illnesses. "[Foods] identified in outbreaks reflect exposures at the point of consumption," the study authors write, noting that they didn't analyze or determine where on the "farm to fork continuum" a given food became contaminated. (Your cutting board, a restaurant's dirty walk-in, and farm-fresh produce that's been showered in E. coli-rich fertilizer were all weighted the same.) "Our estimates … should not be interpreted as suggesting that all foods within a category are equally likely to cause disease."
So don't let that keep you away from the raw chicken—but was your hands all the same.