22 Aug 2014
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Should There Be Hysteria Over Listeria?

Bean salads were pulled from Stop & Shop this week for Listeriosis. But what is exactly is it, who is at risk and how can you decrease your risk?

Should There Be Hysteria Over Listeria?

It’s been almost a year since Colorado’s state health department reported
to the CDC an outbreak of . From August to October, 2011 the outbreak reached 28 states, and 146 cases of invasive Listeriosis were confirmed and reported to public health officials. Thirty patients died and one woman had a miscarriage. This outbreak was the deadliest of foodborne illnesses since 1924, according to the CDC.

This week, reported they have stopped selling their Calico Bean Salad after a voluntary recall by its manufacturer because of possible

Many people admit hearing about Listeriosis in pregnancy or know it is from food, but it is unclear how many really know what it is, who (besides pregnant women) are at risk, how they might be exposed, and what the
symptoms are.

An estimated 1,600 cases of invasive Listeriosis and 260 related deaths occur annually in the United States and an estimated 18 percent of patients with Listeriosis die, according to the CDC. 

But hold on to the hysteria for Listeria…Although these statistics sound high, the risk for invasive Listeriosis after exposure to Listeria monocytogenes is quite low. Thousands of pregnant women consumed the Jensen Farms cantaloupe that caused an outbreak last year, but research indicated that the attack rate of Listeriosis in pregnant women was only one person.

So, what is it? Listeriosis is a foodborne pathogen causing infections usually caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria Monocytogenes. It is one of the top foodborne pathogens in the U.S. (next to E.coli, Salmonella and NoroVirus).

Who is at risk?

  • Older adults. The incidence risk rises each year after 50. The average age for the cantaloupe outbreak was 78.
  • Immuno-compromised people. Anyone taking medications to decrease the immune system, anyone who is awaiting a transplant, anyone with cancer, AIDS or chronic conditions such as liver, kidney, or diabetes.
  • Pregnant women. Women should know this risk is highest in the third trimester. Although the pregnant woman may become ill, it is the unborn baby who is at highest risk due to its immature immune system.

How is one exposed?

  • One can be exposed through deli meats, cold cuts and hot dogs that are not heated to an internal temperature of at least 165°F or not steaming hot just before serving. I have actually heard people say, "Hot dogs are precooked so they really don't even need to be cooked." This is untrue and linked to Listeriosis. As an OB/Gyn Nurse Practitioner, I would deter pregnant patients from eating subs from delis unless they are hot meats. We encourage our patients to cook a full turkey or chicken and cut it up into serving portions, eat hot or keep it in the freezer for sandwiches.
  • Soft cheeses unless they are labeled as made from pasteurized milk. The CDC recommends that pregnant women avoid soft cheeses such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined cheeses and Mexican style cheeses such as queso fresco, queso blanco and panela that do not state they are pasteurized. Hard cheeses such as cheddar and semi-soft cheeses such as mozzarella are safe to consume. Pasteurized processed cheese slices and spreads such as cream cheese and cottage cheese are also safe.

What are the symptoms? Symptoms of Listeriosis may show up 2-30 days after exposure and those include:

  • Mild flu-like symptoms, headaches, muscle aches, fever, nausea, and vomiting.
  • If the infection spreads to the nervous system it can cause stiff neck, disorientation, or convulsions.  

How can you decrease your risk?

  • Wash all fruits and vegetables with soap or vinegar and warm water.
  • Wash hands and preparation surfaces and clean between food preparation and especially between raw and uncooked foods and meats.
  • Keep your refrigerator thermometer at 40 degrees or below.
  • Clean your refrigerator often (Oops! I am guilty of this one!)
  • Cook foods at proper temperatures and reheat all foods until they are steaming hot (use food thermometers to at least 165°F).
  • Refrigerate or freeze food promptly.

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