On September 26, 2013, two brothers, Eric and Ryan Jensen, were arrested on misdemeanor charges of introducing contaminated produce into interstate commerce. The arrest was related to an incident two years prior when Listeria-contaminated cantaloupes from their Colorado farm created the deadliest outbreak of food-borne illness in the last 25 years, causing thirty-three people to die. Now, the news coverage of the arrest has consumers wondering anew just what this illness is and what they can do to protect their health. The following is what you need to know about Listeria.
Listeria – also known as Listeria monocytogenes or L. monocytogenes – is a type of bacteria which can cause food poisoning when people eat foods that are contaminated with it. When people become infected with Listeria this is referred to as listeriosis. About 1,600 people in the United States will become seriously ill with listeriosis each year and about 260 of these people will die.
Listeria can get into food in a few different ways. It can get into vegetables, either through contact with the soil or the manure that is used to fertilize it. Animals can also be carriers of this bacteria, causing meats and dairy products to be susceptible to contamination. And, raw, unpasteurized dairy products are especially prone. Processed foods like soft cheeses and cold cuts can also become contaminated after processing.
Pregnant women, newborns, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems are the most prone to developing a Listeria infection. And, in pregnant women, it can very have serious consequences for their unborn children, including miscarriage, premature birth, infection in the newborn and stillbirth. These high-risk groups account for about 90 percent of all Listeria infections. Healthy individual can also contract listeriosis, but it quite rare for them to go on to develop serious illness.
The possible symptoms of listeriosis include fever, muscle aches, upset stomach and diarrhea. It can also cause symptoms such as headache, stiff neck, mental confusion, loss of balance or convulsions if the infection has spread to the nervous system. Symptoms may only be mild and flu-like, however, in pregnant women.
Anyone who has the above symptoms – especially if they are pregnant or very ill – should talk with a medical professional right away. Listeriosis is treatable with antibiotics and prompt treatment can reduce your risk considerably. Your doctor can confirm that you do have a Listeria infection by testing your blood, spinal fluid (if the infection has spread to the nervous system) or your amniotic fluid/placenta (if you are pregnant).
There are several things that people can do to prevent getting a Listeria infection in the first place, such as: washing raw produce, keeping raw meats separate from other foods, keeping food storage and handling areas clean, cooking meat thoroughly, storing foods properly and avoiding unpasteurized milk. Consumers also need to know that Listeria is resistant to cold temperatures, so refrigeration alone is not enough to kill this microorganism. Processing food, either by cooking or pasteurization, is what is necessary to destroy it.
Written by: Nancy Schimelpfening