Poultry meat is the cause of the most fatalities occurring as a result of foodborne illnesses, according to figures released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The danger comes from chicken, turkey and other poultry meat, which does not cause the biggest number of outbreaks, but when it happens they are the deadliest.

According to the report by the CDC, poultry is responsible for almost one in five fatalities related to foodborne illnesses, or 277 deaths. Meat and poultry combined accounted for 29 percent of deaths. The second most dangerous source of illness is dairy, responsible for one in 10 deaths, followed by vine-stalk vegetables such as peppers which caused 7 percent of fatalities, Bloomberg reported. However, the most common cause of food-related diseases is leaf vegetables, such as spinach, which also cause the second biggest number of hospitalizations, only surpassed by dairy. Overall, fruits and vegetables were found to be responsible for 46 percent of the outbreaks.

The report, published in the Emerging Infectious Diseases journal, used data from 4,589 foodborne illness outbreaks reported between 1998 and 2008 and what caused them. Huge outbreaks during this period included E.coli found in spinach and lettuce and salmonella caused by tomatoes and peppers. On average, 48 million people are affected by foodborne diseases each year, with just 9.6 million of them being linked to known pathogens in food products.

According to the CDC, the findings highlight the need for improved prevention measures among farmers, manufacturers and food processors. Patricia Griffin, chief of the CDC's enteric diseases epidemiology branch, stated that the industry and food regulators should reconsider where they allocate their resources. Safety is of paramount importance, but there are times when people have no idea what actually caused their disease, she pointed out.

One of the most common reasons for foodborne disease outbreaks is poor hygiene. The majority of illnesses traced to leaf vegetables were caused by norovirus, which can only come from humans, not animals. The outbreak can be started when people do not wash their hands before handling the products. Norovirus is highly contagious and causes stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea. The fact that norovirus caused as many as 1,419 outbreaks suggests that they could be prevented just by ensuring higher hygiene standards.

As far as dairy products are concerned, the biggest issues are improper pasteurization and contamination after pasteurization. Consumption of milk and other dairy products caused 16 percent of all hospitalizations — a proportion higher than any other category. This can be attributed to the fact that many consumers drink raw milk, the CDC explained. Dairy products are widely used and large amounts are consumed, which is why even occasional contamination could lead to a large number of affected consumers, the report said.