How to Protect Against Listeria

At the end of last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 15 people had died and 84 were ill from eating listeria-contaminated cantaloupes.

It’s the deadliest food-borne outbreak in 13 years.

Listeria is a bacteria that causes listeriosis, a kind of food poisoning. Every year, according to WebMd, approximately 2,500 people become seriously ill with listeriosis. Most people recover on their own, but the outbreak is particulary dangerous for pregnant women, newborns, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. Once diagnosed, they are given antibiotics.

Listeria can infect a variety of foods, and it’s more insidious than some other food-borne microbes because it thrives under refrigeration and can incubate for weeks before a person exhibits symptoms. The latter makes it difficult to identify the origin, and therefore stop the supply line of germs.

Here’s a primer on listeriosis.

Symptoms include one or more of:

  • fever
  • muscle aches
  • nausea
  • diarrhea
  • headache
  • stiff neck

Prevention involves practicing safe food handling:

  • While shopping, bag raw meat, poulty and fish separately from other food items.
  • Store food as soon as possible after shopping.
  • Wash your hands before and after handling food.
  • Wash fresh produce by rinsing well under running water.
  • Use two cutting boards, one for fresh produce and one for raw meat, poultry and seafood.
  • Wash knives and cutting boards in the dishwasher to disinfect them.
  • Cook, refrigerate or freeze meat, poultry, eggs, fish and prepared foods within two hours of preparation.
  • Refrigerators should be 40 degrees or colder. But because listeria grows in the cold, clean refrigerator spills promptly.
  • Reheat leftovers to at least 165 degrees; don’t eat undercooked hamburger and beware the risk of eating raw fish.
  • If in doubt, throw it out.

If you’re pregnant, do not eat:

  • hot dogs, lunch or deli meats unless steaming hot;
  • soft cheese unless the label says they’re made from pasteurized milk;
  • refrigerated pate or meat spreads;
  • raw milk;
  • store-prepared salads, such as ham, chicken, egg, tuna or seafood.
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