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What is listeria? 8 ways to avoid listeria and more foodborne bacteria

By Nicci Micco, September 28, 2011 - 11:01am

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Since most of us think of Listeria monocytogenes as something that lurks in cold cuts, unpasteurized milk and soft cheeses and sickens mostly pregnant women, you may be puzzled that the recent listeria outbreak originated with cantaloupe. (Jensen Farms’s voluntary recall of its Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupes has been linked to 72 illnesses, including up to 16 deaths, making it the most deadly listeria outbreak in a decade.)

The truth is, listeria can be found in all sorts of foods, including other fruits and vegetables. And while listerosis primarily affects older adults—the average age of this most recent outbreak is 78—and persons with weakened immune systems, pregnant women and newborns, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in rare cases it can affect people who don’t fall into these high-risk categories.

Related: How many food-safety rules do you follow? Take this quiz.
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Symptoms of listeriosis include fever and muscle aches, and sometimes nausea or diarrhea. In pregnant women, listeriosis typically presents with only mild flu-like symptoms—but infections during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, or life-threatening infection of the newborn. Since symptoms can appear up to two months after eating an affected food, we may be hearing of more cases of listeria connected to this recall in the coming weeks. If think you’ve gotten sick from eating cantaloupe, consult your doctor ASAP.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of getting sick from listeria, and other foodborne bacteria. (4 more foodborne bacteria you want to avoid):

1. When there’s a food recall, check your foods at home. You should discard any food that’s been recalled because of being associated with the outbreak of a foodborne illness. But according to a 2008 survey conducted by Rutgers University, only about 60 percent of Americans search their homes for foods that have been recalled because of contamination. For more information on food recalls, visit

2. Rinse raw produce, such as vegetables and fruits—even melons, the rinds of which you will not eat—thoroughly under running tap water before eating. Dry with a clean cloth or paper towel before cutting them. (Why wash what you won’t eat? A contaminated knife used on the outer surface of the fruit can transfer bacteria to the edible parts of the produce.)

3. Thoroughly cook raw meat and poultry. Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of meat, poultry and egg dishes. The USDA Recommended Safe Minimum Internal Temperatures are as follows: beef, veal and lamb (steaks and roasts), fish, 145°F; pork and ground beef, 160°F; poultry, 165°F. Those who are at high risk for developing foodborne illness—pregnant women and their unborn babies, and newborns, young children, older adults, people with weakened immune systems or certain chronic illnesses—should follow these guidelines.

4. Heat deli meats. If you’re in a high-risk category for listeria, heat hot dogs, deli meats and cold cuts until they are steaming-hot just before serving.

5. Do not drink raw (unpasteurized) milk, and do not eat fresh soft cheeses that have unpasteurized milk in them, especially Mexican-style cheeses like queso fresco.

6. Be sure that your refrigerator is at or below 40°F. Cold temperatures slow the growth of bacteria. Ensuring that your food stays at the proper temperature is one of the most effective ways to reduce your risk of foodborne illness. You can buy a “refrigerator/freezer thermometer” at appliance stores, home centers (e.g., Home Depot) and kitchen stores.

7. Always use separate cutting boards for raw meat/poultry/fish and produce/cooked foods. Bacteria from uncooked meat, poultry and fish can contaminate cooked foods and fresh produce. An important way to reduce this risk is to use separate cutting boards for raw meat/poultry/fish and produce/cooked foods.

8. Wash your hands!

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TAGS: Nicci Micco, Food News Blog, Food & health news

Nicci Micco
Nicci Micco is co-author of EatingWell 500-Calorie Dinners. She has a master's degree in nutrition and food sciences, with a focus in weight management.

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