SALT LAKE CITY — The type of food that leads to the most deaths from foodborne illnesses is not the type most likely to get you sick, according to a newly released report from the Centers for Disease Control.
Despite the popular belief that red meat is most likely to cause illness, the biggest culprits are actually leafy greens, according to the study. Leafy greens account for 22.1 percent of foodborne illnesses, the most out of all food types studied. They only accounted for 6 percent of deaths, though — making leafy greens the fifth most frequent cause of death.
That does not mean people should feel unsafe about eating produce or use the numbers as a reason to eat less healthy foods, according to the CDC's Dr. Patricia Griffin.
"We know that the vast majority of meals are safe," she told NBC News. "As far as fruits and vegetables in particular, CDC is well aware and promotes the fact that they are an important part of a healthy diet. They are linked to reduced risk of heart attacks, strokes and cancer."
One of the problems may be that it is harder to protect from germs in raw foods. "Most of those produce items that caused those illnesses were consumed raw," Griffin said.
Rounding out the top five are:
Dairy products were responsible for 13.7 percent of all foodborne illnesses and 10 percent of foodborne illness-related deaths.
Most dairy products are consumed after pasteurization, which eliminates pathogens, but pasteurization is not a guarantee that illness will not occur, according to the CDC.
The center noted norovirus outbreaks, such as the one suspected in sickening 250 at the Provo MTC earlier this month, demonstrate how dairy products can be contaminated after pasteurization.
Additionally, the amount of dairy products consumed on a daily basis in the U.S. means even infrequent contaminations can spread to a large number of people.
The U.S. government suggests leaving dairy products out for no longer than two hours. When preparing foods that will not be cooked, pasteurized egg product should be used instead of raw eggs.
Fruits and nuts
Fruits and nuts had the third-highest rate of occurrences of foodborne illnesses, at 12.1 percent of the total. The group accounted for 6 percent of deaths.
That raw foods are harder to protect from germs also helps explain fruit's presence on the list. Like other produce, fruit should be washed before consumed. The U.S. government also suggests staying away from bruised or damaged fruit, storing fruit away from meat and poultry, and washing produce thoroughly, despite whether there is visible dirt.
Poultry was fourth on the list, accounting for 9.7 percent of foodborne illnesses and 19 percent of foodborne illness-related death, the highest of all types of food.
In the study, most of the deaths associated with poultry were caused by listeria or salmonella. Among ready-to-eat foods, delicatessen meat was identified as the highest risk.
Those preparing poultry should always be careful not to cross-contaminate with produce and other types of food. The USDA has fact sheets about how best to prepare and store chicken, turkey and other types of poultry.
Vine-stalk vegetables were responsible for 7.9 percent of foodborne illnesses and 7 percent of related deaths, following only poultry and dairy as a cause of death in the study.
Like other types of produce, these vegetables should be washed thoroughly and prepared carefully to avoid contamination.