Listeria can be found in soil, in food--and in the news. Of the 78 notices
posted on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's recall and safety
alerts web page during the month of June alone, more than half of them--41--had
to do with listeria contamination. The bacteria can cause serious health
problems--even death, in rare and extreme cases--so it's wise to know
more about it and how to keep it out of your kitchen.
Phillip Cecchini, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician at
Mission Heritage Medical Group, answers essential questions about listeria.
Q. Why have there been so many cases of listeria lately?
A. Using new scientific technologies and a database of foodborne bacteria,
the federal government has developed a new system to track pathogens such
as listeria. Officials believe the system enables them to find more cases
of contamination than in the past.
Q. Where are listeria hot spots--places where the bacteria thrive?
A. The bacteria can live in soil and water. Animals such as cows and chickens
can harbor listeria--if they are processed for food, they can infect the
meat-production facility. And cows with listeria can produce infected raw milk.
Q. So aside from raw poultry, beef and milk, what other foods can carry listeria?
A. Soft cheeses and other dairy products made from unpasteurized milk,
produce grown in contaminated soil, processed meats such as hot dogs and
sliced sandwich meats, and smoked seafood fished from water with listeria.
Q. Can listeria be destroyed in food?
A. Yes, with heat--either through cooking or pasteurization. Listeria actually
keeps growing in food that's refrigerated.
Q. How do I prevent food poisoning from listeria?
A. Aside from cooking your food to safe internal temperatures and avoiding
unpasteurized dairy products, you should also wash your produce with water
and rub dry with a paper towel. Processed meats should be eaten as soon
as possible after their packaging has been opened. Basic kitchen hygiene
helps, too: Utensils, plates, cutting boards, counters and anything else
that's been in contact with raw food should be washed in hot, soapy
water. Your refrigerator shelves should also be scrubbed regularly with
soap and water; raw meat or poultry juices should be wiped up ASAP.
Q. Can anyone get sick from listeria?
A. Yes, although some people are more at risk than others of getting listeriosis,
which is the foodborne illness caused by listeria. Those groups include
pregnant women (listeriosis is dangerous for both the mother and baby),
seniors and people with weakened immune systems. Generally, people with
listeriosis can suffer several days of vomiting, fever, confusion and
a stiff neck. It can be resolved with antibiotics--and the earlier treatment
is started, the better.
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