WASHINGTON – The Center for Science in the Public Interest released a new report ranking meat and poultry items that pose the greatest foodborne illness risk to consumers.

CSPI’s “Risky Meat: A CSPI Field Guide to Meat & Poultry Safety” examines 12 years of foodborne illness outbreak data and ranks meat and poultry foods from Highest to Low risk. Ground beef and chicken were labeled as the posing the greatest risk of foodborne illnesses that may require hospitalization. Sausage, ham and chicken nuggets were ranked as presenting the lowest risk, according to CSPI.

"Outbreaks from ground beef and chicken are reported frequently, and all too often cause debilitating illnesses—illnesses that lead to hospitalization," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, CSPI food-safety director. "For example, approximately a quarter of those who are sickened by Salmonella will go to the hospital. The hospitalization rate for E. coli infections is nearly 50 percent and for Listeria infections it is more than 90 percent."

However, James Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute Foundation, was critical of CSPI's decision to focus only on meat and poultry.

"A broader examination of the total food supply could have delivered a more meaningful examination of food-safety risk from our normal diets and would have shown that we have a meat and poultry supply that delivers consistently safe eating experiences," Hodges said in a statement. "We do agree with CSPI's perspective that better food attribution data is needed to understand the causes of foodborne illnesses and potential strategies for improvement."

CSPI said ground beef and chicken are responsible for the largest numbers of outbreaks and illnesses. Also, the illnesses associated with such outbreaks tend to be more severe.

"Meat and poultry producers must bear primary responsibility for keeping pathogens out of their products, but when it comes to beef, chicken, and other raw meats, restaurateurs and home cooks must treat them like hazardous materials and take steps to minimize risk," said Sarah Klein, CSPI senior food safety attorney. "Care should be taken to avoid spreading germs from the meat around the kitchen, and meat thermometers should be used to ensure that ground beef, chicken and other meats are fully cooked."

Ashley Peterson, Ph.D., vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the National Chicken Council, said all chicken is safe to eat when properly handled and cooked, and that consumers can feel confident about including chicken as a lean, low-fat and high-protein part of a healthy, balanced diet.

She said rigorous food-safety standards are applied to all US chicken and all chicken products must meet or exceed safety standards mandated by the US Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

"Instructions for safe handling and cooking are printed on every package of meat and poultry sold in the United States — when followed, one can be assured of a safe eating experience every time," Peterson said.