This month, Righting Injustice has featured two stories about separate Listeria infections affecting products from Whole Foods. In early October, the food retailer issued a nationwide recall on an organic Roquefort cheese, and earlier this week the company announced a regional recall on prepared salads affecting stores and warehouses on the East Coast. But just what is Listeria and how does it affect consumers?
While Listeria Monogynes bacteria are not a leading cause of food poisoning, they are among the deadliest of foodborne pathogens, causing about 255 deaths in the United States every year.
A Gram-positive, rod-shaped bacteria, Listeria is notorious not only for its lethalness but also for its persistence in food-manufacturing facilities and ability to not only survive in temperatures below freezing, but to thrive in them.
One of the most notable outbreaks of Listeria illness occurred earlier this year after shipments of Listeria-contaminated Blue Bell ice cream manufactured in unsanitary facilities were distributed to several states. U.S. health authorities linked the ice cream to 10 illnesses and the deaths of three people in Kansas. The threat of further contamination in the best-selling ice cream brands was so severe, it resulted in a complete recall of all the company’s ice cream products nationwide and the temporary closure of its three production plants.
The main sources of Listeria are processed deli meat and hot dogs, refrigerated pâtés and other meat-based spreads, unpasteurized raw milk and soft cheese made from raw milk, refrigerated smoked seafood, and raw sprouts.
The populations most at risk are older adults and seniors, pregnant women, organ transplant patients on anti-rejection drugs, and people with weakened immune systems or other health problems, such as HIV/AIDS and other autoimmune diseases, cancer, end-stage renal disease, liver disease, alcoholism, and diabetes.
Listeriosis usually manifests as fever and muscle aches, sometimes preceded by diarrhea, nausea, cramps, and other gastrointestinal symptoms. Almost everyone who is diagnosed with listeriosis has “invasive” infection, in which the bacteria spread beyond the gastrointestinal tract.
The most severe infections have a mortality rate between 15-30 percent. In these cases, the infection spreads through the bloodstream to the nervous system and brain, resulting in bacterial meningitis and other potentially fatal problems.
Pregnant women are approximately 20 times more likely than other healthy adults to get listeriosis from eating contaminated foods. Listeriosis typically manifests as a mild flu-like illness in pregnant women, but is usually fatal for the unborn child, as it can result in miscarriage or stillbirth. Babies that survive a listeria infection often develop life-long health problems.
A large listeriosis outbreak that occurred in Los Angeles, Calif., in 1985 was linked to contaminated Mexican-style soft cheese. The outbreak sickened at least 142 people. Among them, 93 cases occurred in pregnant women or their offspring, and the remaining cases occurred in other adults. The outbreak led to 48 deaths, including 20 fetuses, 10 newborns, and 18 non-pregnant adults.
Antibiotics can promptly cure listeria infections, so pregnant women and others at risk should seek medical attention if they suspect they have been sickened by listeria.
To protect yourself from foodborne Listeria, federal health authorities recommend you take the following precautions:
- Do not drink raw (unpasteurized) milk, and do not eat foods that have unpasteurized milk in them.
- Wash hands, knives, countertops, and cutting boards after handling and preparing uncooked foods.
- Rinse raw produce thoroughly under running tap water before eating.
- Keep uncooked meats, poultry, and seafood separate from vegetables, fruits, cooked foods, and ready-to-eat foods.
- Thoroughly cook raw food from animal sources, such as meat, poultry, or seafood to a safe internal temperature.
- Consume perishable and ready-to-eat foods as soon as possible.
- Persons in higher risk groups should heat hot dogs, cold cuts, and deli meats before eating them.