High Risk Foods
Almost any food can become contaminated and cause food poisoning.
Most foods, as long as you practice general food safety practices, are safe for the average person to eat.
There are some high risk foods that no one should usually eat, though, including:
- raw milk
- raw eggs
- unpasteurized fruit juice
- uncooked and undercooked beef, pork, and poultry
- leftovers that have been unrefrigerated for more than two hours
- raw cookie dough
It is well known that there can be E. coli in ground beef and Salmonella in chicken, so few people would eat a rare hamburger or an undercooked chicken. You don't have to wait for a food recall to know it is risky to eat these foods without cooking them thoroughly.
High Risk Foods - Food Poisoning
In addition to foods that are risky for everyone, other foods can be a problem for certain high risk groups, including pregnant women, people with weakened immune systems, elderly people, and very young children.
In general, they should not eat these high risk foods, such as:
- uncooked shellfish (raw oysters, etc.)
- raw sprouts
- undercooked, runny eggs (consider using pasteurized eggs)
- cheese that is made with unpasteurized milk, which can sometimes include soft cheeses (feta, Brie, Camembert, etc.), blue-veined cheeses, and many Mexican-style cheeses (queso blanco, queso fresco, queso panela)
- hot dogs, fermented or dry sausages, luncheon meats, cold cuts, other deli meats (e.g., bologna), unless they are first heated until they are steaming hot or to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F
- refrigerated pâté or meat spreads
- refrigerated smoked seafood
These foods can be a source of Listeria, Salmonella, and other bacteria.
High Risk Foods - Babies
One of the most well-known examples of a high risk food for babies is the warning about giving honey to newborns and infants less than 12 months old because of the risk of botulism.
You can also help to prevent your baby from getting food poisoning by making sure he does not drink leftover formula, milk, or juice from a bottle or cup if it has been left out for more than two hours.
Leftover baby food can also be a risk for food poisoning, which is why it is always a good idea to feed your baby from a dish, instead of directly from the jar. You can store an opened jar of baby food, as long as your baby didn't eat directly from the jar, for up to three days. If you fed your baby directly from the jar, you should just throw out whatever is leftover.
There are also guidelines for how long you can safely store pumped breast milk.
High Risk Foods - Choking
Some foods are risky not because they will cause food poisoning, but because younger kids can choke on them.
Choking is a leading cause of death for younger children, especially infants, toddlers, and preschool age children who are under age four years, which makes it important to avoid these high risk foods until kids are older:
- uncut hotdogs
- hard candy
- whole grapes
- raw carrots
- chunks of peanut butter
- chewing gum
While some of these choke foods, like chewing gum, hard candy, and nuts, should simply be avoided until your child is older, others should just be cut up well into 1/2 inch bite-size pieces so that they are less of a choking hazard.
Other High Risk Foods
Fish can be another high risk food for kids.
Not necessarily because of bacterial contamination, though -- fish can be contaminated with mercury.
That is why the EPA has recommended limits on the amount of fish that certain people eat, including pregnant women, nursing mothers, women who may become pregnant, and young children.
The fish and mercury warnings have prompted recommendations that these high risk groups:
- avoid eating fish with high levels of mercury, such as shark, swordfish, King Mackerel, or tilefish
- eat other fish that are lower in mercury up to twice a week (about 12 ounces/2 average meals), such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish, although they should only eat albacore tuna once a week since it can have more mercury than canned light tuna
- check local advisories before eating fish caught locally by family or friends and limit eating this fish to just one 6 ounce serving if you aren't sure about the mercury level of fish in your area
Like most other high risk foods, there are benefits to eating fish, so don't abandon this source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids all together -- just follow these simple rules to make it less risky.
American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement. Prevention of Choking Among Children Pediatrics 2010 125: 601-607.
Long: Principles and Practice of Pediatric Infectious Diseases Revised Reprint, 3rd ed.