Listeria can be found in soil, in food--and in the news. Of the 78 notices posted on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's recall and safety alerts web page during the month of June alone, more than half of them--41--had to do with listeria contamination. The bacteria can cause serious health problems--even death, in rare and extreme cases--so it's wise to know more about it and how to keep it out of your kitchen. Phillip Cecchini, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician at Mission Heritage Medical Group, answers essential questions about listeria.
Q. Why have there been so many cases of listeria lately?
A. Using new scientific technologies and a database of foodborne bacteria, the federal government has developed a new system to track pathogens such as listeria. Officials believe the system enables them to find more cases of contamination than in the past.
Q. Where are listeria hot spots--places where the bacteria thrive?
A. The bacteria can live in soil and water. Animals such as cows and chickens can harbor listeria--if they are processed for food, they can infect the meat-production facility. And cows with listeria can produce infected raw milk.
Q. So aside from raw poultry, beef and milk, what other foods can carry listeria?
A. Soft cheeses and other dairy products made from unpasteurized milk, produce grown in contaminated soil, processed meats such as hot dogs and sliced sandwich meats, and smoked seafood fished from water with listeria.
Q. Can listeria be destroyed in food?
A. Yes, with heat--either through cooking or pasteurization. Listeria actually keeps growing in food that's refrigerated.
Q. How do I prevent food poisoning from listeria?
A. Aside from cooking your food to safe internal temperatures and avoiding unpasteurized dairy products, you should also wash your produce with water and rub dry with a paper towel. Processed meats should be eaten as soon as possible after their packaging has been opened. Basic kitchen hygiene helps, too: Utensils, plates, cutting boards, counters and anything else that's been in contact with raw food should be washed in hot, soapy water. Your refrigerator shelves should also be scrubbed regularly with soap and water; raw meat or poultry juices should be wiped up ASAP.
Q. Can anyone get sick from listeria?
A. Yes, although some people are more at risk than others of getting listeriosis, which is the foodborne illness caused by listeria. Those groups include pregnant women (listeriosis is dangerous for both the mother and baby), seniors and people with weakened immune systems. Generally, people with listeriosis can suffer several days of vomiting, fever, confusion and a stiff neck. It can be resolved with antibiotics--and the earlier treatment is started, the better.
When a company issues a major recall notice (most recalls are voluntary), the FDA will post the information on its website. Visitors to the website can sign up for email notifications of recalls, or follow the FDA Twitter account @FDArecalls.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.