Listeria: What People Need To Know About The Food They Consume

Recently there has been a spate of health concerns over the bacteria commonly known as listeria. Just in the last month alone, the Inquisitr has reported on several Blue Bell incidents and a listeria scare with Sabra hummus dips. But how can consumers make sure the products they are buying are safe? Firstly, we need to understand what listeria is.

What is Listeria?

In relation to food items, according to Medilexicon’s medical dictionary, Listeria (more precisely known as the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes) is a very dangerous bacteria that is associated with improperly processed items. When people get ill from ingesting the listeria bacteria, it is then known as listeriosis.

“A sporadic disease of animals and humans, particularly those who are immunocompromised or pregnant, caused by the bacterium, Listeria monocytogenes (family, Listeriaceae)… [It is a] significant foodborne illness. Origin in soil, water, silage, fecal contamination of field vegetables, improperly processed food (inadequate sterilization, punctured tins, inadequate pasteurization); very resistant organism (resists salt, acid, heat and nitrite preservatives. Can replicate at normally safe refrigerator temperatures (slow growth at 24o F.)”

What are the Symptoms?

Listeria symptoms can include any (or all) of the following and occur, usually, from 3-10 days after infection but can take as long as two months to present:

  • headache
  • stiff neck
  • confusion
  • loss of balance
  • convulsions
  • fever
  • muscle aches
  • diarrhea or other gastrointestinal symptoms

As well as these symptoms, people suffering from immunocompromising conditions may develop septicemia and meningitis from listeria. Other susceptible people include immunocompetent people and pregnant women.

Pregnant Women

Extra precautions and measures need to be addressed if pregnant women come in contact with listeria. Their symptoms can include all of the above but according to the CDC, listeriosis during pregnancy can “lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, or life-threatening infection of the newborn,” so it is advisable pregnant women refrain from eating questionable food items as well as seeking medical attention as soon as they suspect they may have come into contact with the listeria bacteria.

What Foods are Most Vulnerable to Listeria?

According to the FoodSafety.gov, these are the types of foods which listeria love:

  • Raw foods. For example, fruits vegetables, salads and sprouts as listeria can be transmitted through soil
  • Meat. For example, raw meat, incorrectly cooked meat and smoked products
  • Milk products, especially unpasteurized products. For example, ice cream, raw milk products, soft cheeses and all other dairy products
  • Deli products. For example, sandwich meats, hot dogs, pâté, meat spreads

Safety Procedures

Listeria is a bacteria that thrives in cold, wet environments, which is why it is so important to maintain good hygiene standards. The following points are critical:

  • Cook all meat thoroughly
  • Follow all storage requirements correctly, paying particular attention to shelf life and correct refrigeration temperature requirements
  • When cooling products for refrigeration, place the food in containers that will facilitate quick even cooling
  • Learn how to wash your hands correctly and make sure all kitchen utensils have been washed and dried thoroughly before use
  • Make sure your refrigerator is set below 40°F and your freezer is set to 0°F or lower as listeria loves cool temperatures above these
  • When spills in your refrigerator occur, clean them up immediately using hot water and liquid soap, rinsing afterwards
  • Scrub all fruits and vegetables to remove any soil bacteria that may still be present — even from fruits and vegetables where the skin will be discarded. Many listeria cases have been linked to eating melons.

Listeriosis Treatment

If you do suspect you have come in contact with listeria, it is important to seek medical attention as soon as possible. People suffering from listeriosis will be treated with antibiotics.

[Image Credit: CDC/Dr. Balasubr Swaminathan; Peggy Hayes]