Beware Mom: Listeria is a Killer
Mom, imagine that you are in a sci-fi movie, stalked by a relentless creature who has targeted you and your family. This deadly killer ignores others and focuses its wrath on you and your young children. It takes all of your knowledge and skill to survive and protect those you love.
Fiction? No! This killer with the scary-sounding name is Listeria monocytogenes, a foodborne bacteria that is a very real threat to pregnant women and their young children.
Listeria is the 3rd leading cause of death from foodborne illness. Ninety percent of the people who get Listeria infections are either pregnant women and their newborns or older people over age 65. Pregnant women are 20 times more likely to get a Listeria infection than other healthy adults. Listeria can cause miscarriage, premature delivery and stillbirth. It can also cause serious bacterial infection and meningitis Most people who have a Listeria infection require hospital care, and 1 in 5 people die.
September is National Food Safety Education Month– a time to draw attention to foodborne illnesses and ways that consumers can keep food safe in order to keep themselves healthy.
A foodborne illness occurs when people eat or drink harmful microorganisms or contaminants in their food or beverages. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that there are about 48 million cases of foodborne illness each year– on average, that’s 1 in 6 Americans each year who get sick from something they eat.
Food safety is important to everyone, but it is especially important to groups that we know are at higher risk of serious consequences from foodborne illnesses. Those vulnerable groups include the very young, the very old, and people who are already in poor health or with weakened immune systems. Foodborne illness is a special risk for pregnant women whose immune systems are stressed due to pregnancy, and their unborn children, infants and young children whose immune systems are not developed enough to fight off harmful microorganisms.
The bacteria Listeria monocytogenes is especially dangerous for several reasons. Listeria is a hardy germ which can survive at refrigerator temperatures where most other foodborne bacteria do not. So, it breaks the rules about keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold as a way to control microorganisms. When someone eats food contaminated with Listeria, sickness may not occur until weeks later when it is difficult to identify which food might have been the source. Listeria can contaminate many foods that we don’t usually cook, and Listeria can contaminate some foods that we don’t usually associate with foodborne illness problems, like cantaloupe and celery and sprouts
The most common culprits for Listeria are moist, high-protein foods which aren’t usually cooked. To prevent the risk of illness from Listeria, pregnant women and their young children should heed these cautions:
– Do not eat hot dogs or luncheon meats- unless they’re steaming hot.
– Do not eat soft cheese unless it’s made with pasteurized milk. These would include cheeses such as Feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined soft cheese, queso fresco or other soft ethnic cheeses. Check the labels to be sure.
– Do not eat refrigerated meat spreads or dips.
– Do not eat refrigerated smoked seafood unless it’s in a cooked dish. This would include gourmet smoked seafood products such as smoked salmon and related foods that might be labeled as lox or “nova-style” and sold in the refrigerated section of the deli or seafood counter of grocery stores.
– Do not eat raw sprouts.
– Do not drink raw milk or eat foods that contain unpasteurized milk.
– Do not eat homemade jerky unless it was prepared according to current recommendations to heat the product to 160 degrees before or after drying.
Reliable food safety information about Listeria is available online from the Centers for Disease Control, the US Department of Agriculture, the federal Food and Drug Administration and K-State Research and Extension. You may also contact the Ellis County Extension Office for the USDA publication “Food Safety for Pregnant Women” and other resources about food safety and how to protect your family from food-borne illness. Visit us at 601 Main Street in Hays, see our website at www.ellis.ksu.edu or call 785-628-9430.