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Stay Safe from Listeria

Listeria. The name may be new to you, but food safety experts have known about this risky germ for decades. Listeria monocytogenes bacterial infections are on the rise in the United States. This hardy organism, which can grow even at cold temperatures and survive long bouts in the freezer, is causing more and more cases of foodborne illness.

Listeria monocytogenes bacteria cause a condition called listeriosis, characterized by flulike symptoms including fever and chills. Listeriosis may take from three to eight weeks to show up after eating contaminated food. According to the USDA, pregnant women and children are among those at greatest risk from Listeria monocytogenes. Moms-to-be can transmit the illness to their unborn babies, causing miscarriage, stillbirth, or other serious health problems. When recognized early on, listeriosis is treatable with antibiotics. However, it's best to do what you can to avoid listeria infections, since they cause nearly half of reported deaths due to foodborne disease. Most people don't get listeriosis, but of the ones who do, about a quarter of them die from it.

Intense heat, including pasteurization, is lethal for Listeria monocytogenes. Even certain cooked foods, including processed meats such as bologna and other lunch and deli meats and hot dogs, may be health hazards. They may become contaminated within processing plants or en route to your plate. Listeria monocytogenes may even be found in uncooked vegetables.

Avoid Listeria monocytogenes with these tips from the USDA:

  • Reheat until steaming: hot dogs, luncheon meats, cold cuts, fermented and dry sausage, and other deli-style meats and poultry. If you cannot reheat these foods, do not feed them to children or pregnant women.
  • Wash hands with warm soapy water for at least twenty seconds, and do the same for cutting boards, dishes, and utensils.
  • Avoid unpasteurized dairy products of any sort. Soft cheeses such as Brie, Camembert, feta, and blue-veined or Mexican-style cheeses are particularly risky, but hard and processed cheeses, cottage cheese, yogurt, and cream cheese are not.
  • Pitch foods that are past their expiration dates.
  • Thoroughly heat all leftovers.

Copyright © 2002 by Elizabeth M. Ward. Excerpted from Healthy Foods, Healthy Kids with permission of its publisher, Adams Media Corporation.

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