Stephanie strived to take care of herself and her unborn baby. As an ultrasound technologist working with high-risk pregnancies, Stephanie knew more than most what could go wrong during a pregnancy. She knew the risks of Listeria--a germ that can cause food poisoning or worse--after seeing its damaging effects firsthand while working at the hospital. Unfortunately, Stephanie developed listeriosis, an infection caused by eating Listeria-tainted food. Her beautiful son, Michael, delivered brain dead and unable to breathe on his own, died two days later--another casualty of Listeria food poisoning. (Read Stephanie’s entire story.)
Sometimes foods we love and count on for good health are contaminated with germs that cause illness and can be deadly for certain people. A new Vital Signs report on foodborne illness looks at one of the most deadly germs spread by contaminated food—Listeria—and the people it strikes the hardest.
Rare but Deadly
Although Listeria is common in the environment, it rarely causes listeriosis. About 1,600 people in the United States get sick from Listeria each year. While the infection is rare, in 2011, a new source—cantaloupes contaminated with Listeria—caused one of the deadliest foodborne outbreaks in the US.
Most at Risk
Listeria, the third leading cause of death from food poisoning, targets pregnant women and their babies, people with weakened immune systems, and those 65 years or older. Listeria hits these groups the hardest, accounting for at least 90 percent of reported Listeria infections and resulting in higher rates of hospitalization and death than most other foodborne bacteria.
- Pregnant women, fetuses, and newborn infants
Listeria can pass from a pregnant woman to her fetus or newborn. It can cause miscarriage and still birth; in newborns it can cause bloodstream infection, meningitis, or death. The risk for pregnant women is ten times higher than for the general population. For Hispanic pregnant women, the risk is 24 times higher. More consumption of Mexican-style soft cheese, like queso fresco, may explain the higher rates among Hispanics.
Listeria Outbreak: Queso fresco (a type of soft cheese) sickened 142 people, killed 10 newborns and 18 adults, and caused 20 miscarriages.
- People with weakened immune systems
A weak immune system increases the risk of Listeria infection. Many illnesses can weaken the immune system, including different kinds of cancer, HIV/AIDS, kidney and liver disease. In addition, many medicines can weaken the immune system, including steroids, cancer chemotherapy, and drugs to treat rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases. Listeria infection occurs more often in this group than in people with strong immune systems.
Listeria Outbreak: Pre-cut celery in chicken salad served at hospitals sickened 10 people who had other serious health problems. Five of them died as a result.
- Adults 65 years or older
Listeria can spread through the bloodstream to cause meningitis and often kills. The risk for those 65 years or older is four times higher than for the general population.
Listeria Outbreak: Contaminated whole cantaloupes sickened 147 people in 28 states and caused one of the deadliest foodborne outbreaks in the US. There were 33 deaths, mostly in adults over 65, reported during the outbreak.
What Can You Do?
We have made some progress against Listeria. However, we can do more to protect those at higher risk for food poisoning and make food safer for everyone. People at higher risk and those who cook for them can reduce the threat of listeriosis by following these food safety tips.
- Learn which foods are risky and do not eat these foods.
- Do not drink raw (unpasteurized) milk or eat soft cheeses made from it.
- Be aware that Mexican-style cheeses made from pasteurized milk, such as queso fresco, likely contaminated during cheese-making, have caused Listeria infections.
- Heat deli meats and hot dogs until steaming hot before eating.
- Avoid refrigerated smoked seafood unless it is in a cooked dish, such as a casserole.
- Use ready-to-eat, refrigerated foods as soon as possible. The longer they are stored in the refrigerator, the more chance Listeria has to grow.
- Refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours in shallow covered containers and use within 3-4 days.
- Be careful to avoid cross-contamination in the refrigerator or other places in the kitchen.
- Use a thermometer to make sure your refrigerator is 40°F or lower and your freezer is 0°F or lower.
CDC wants to thank Stephanie and her family and the STOP organization for providing public awareness about those impacted by food poisoning.
For more information about Listeria, who is most at risk, and tips for preventing food poisoning from Listeria and other foodborne bacteria, visit:
- Listeriosis (CDC)
General information on diagnosis, treatment, prevention, and lessons from outbreaks.
- Vital Signs: Recipe for Food Safety: Protecting people from deadly Listeria food poisoning (CDC)
Recent data and calls to action on Listeria food poisoning and its impact on vulnerable populations.
- Listeria monocytogenes (USDA)
General information plus directives and notices, compliance guidelines, and more.
- Education materials for At Risk People (CDC, FDA, USDA)
- Foodsafety.gov/ Listeria
- Special Handling for Ready-to-Eat, Refrigerated Foods: Reducing the Risks of Foodborne Listeria (FDA)
Dana L. Pitts is the Associate Director of Communications in the Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases at the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases of the CDC.
You’re out on the boat at last, and looking forward to catchin’ some rays and maybe even some fish. The last thing you need is food poisoning.
But like a lot of boaters, you could be taking chances. Too much sun on a hot day can make perishable food dangerous.
Perishable food and your “catch” must be handled with care. Mishandled food can become contaminated with bacteria and cause food poisoning.
- Perishables, like lunch meats, cooked chicken and potato or pasta salads, should be kept cold in a cooler with ice.
- Pack your cooler with several inches of ice or use frozen gel packs.
- Store food in water-tight containers to prevent contact with melting ice.
- Keep the cooler out of the sun, covered, if possible, for further insulation.
- Not all foods need refrigeration. Good non-perishables for boat trips are fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, trail mix, canned meat spreads and yes, peanut butter and jelly. Once canned meats have been opened, keep them in the cooler.
- If you don’t have a cooler try freezing sandwiches for your trip. Use coarse-textured bread that will resist getting soggy when thawed and take mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato with you to add when you’re ready to eat.
- If you bring a cooler, keep it closed as much as possible and store drinks in a second cooler.
Put perishables back on ice as soon as possible after eating. Don’t let food sit out while you fish or swim. Food sitting out of refrigeration for more than 2 hours is not safe to eat. At 90 degrees or above, food should not sit out over 1 hour. At high temperatures food spoils quickly. If you have any doubts, throw it out!
If you’re planning to fish, check with your fish and game agency or state health department to see where you can fish safely, then follow these guidelines.
- Scale, gut, and clean fish as soon as they're caught.
- Live fish can be kept on stringers or in live wells, as long as they have enough water and enough room to move and breathe.
- Wrap fish, both whole and cleaned, in water-tight plastic and store on ice.
- Keep 3 to 4 inches of ice on the bottom of the cooler. Alternate layers of fish and ice.
- Store the cooler out of the sun and cover with a blanket.
- Once home, eat fresh fish within 1 to 2 days or freeze them. For top quality, use frozen fish within 3 to 6 months.
- Crabs, lobsters, and other shellfish must be kept alive until cooked.
- Store in live wells or out of water in a bushel or laundry basket under wet burlap or seaweed.
- Live oysters should be cooked within 7 to 10 days.
- Live mussels and clams should be cooked within 4 to 5 days.
- Eating raw shellfish is extremely dangerous. People with liver disorders or weakened immune systems are especially at risk.
For more seafood safety information including a video, visit us at FoodSafety.gov.
Mother’s Day got here faster than you expected and you’re short on time, but you still want to make a special meal for mom. Have you thought about using your microwave? It’s fast, safe and easy.
Microwave ovens can play an important role at mealtime, but special care must be taken when cooking or reheating meat, poultry, fish, and eggs to make sure they are prepared safely. They can cook unevenly and leave "cold spots," where harmful bacteria can survive. For this reason, it is important to be aware of how to use a microwave oven safely to prevent food poisoning, whether you are cooking from scratch or using a frozen convenience meal.
Frozen or Convenience Foods
If you’re using a convenience product, it is important to read and follow the cooking instructions on the package so you’ll know whether you should cook the product in a microwave oven or a conventional oven. You may end up with an undercooked meal and experience food poisoning if you don’t!
Check out our useful tips to help you "Cook It Safe!" when preparing convenience foods.
Cooking From Scratch
If you’re cooking from scratch in a microwave oven, here are a few important food safety tips:
- First of all, don’t forget to check your steps to food safety!
- Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often
- Separate: Don’t cross-contaminate
- Cook : Cook to the right temperature
- Chill: Refrigerate promptly
- Only use cookware that is specially manufactured for use in the microwave oven. Glass, ceramic containers, and all plastics should be labeled for microwave oven use.
- Arrange food items evenly in a covered dish and add some liquid if needed. Cover the dish with a lid or plastic wrap; loosen or vent the lid or wrap to let steam escape.
- Stir or rotate food midway through the microwaving time to eliminate cold spots where harmful bacteria can survive, and for more even cooking.
- Use a food thermometer or the oven's temperature probe to verify the food has reached a safe minimum internal temperature. Cooking times may vary because ovens vary in power and efficiency. Always allow standing time, which completes the cooking, before checking the internal temperature with a food thermometer.
- Cook foods to the following safe minimum internal temperatures .