CDC: Listeria outbreaks rare but severe

IceCream_YoungGirl_wBackground_blogIf you were not familiar with Listeria before, there’s a good chance you are now due to the recent recalls of ice cream and hummus which were both recently found to be contaminated with the pathogen. The contaminated ice cream has been linked to several cases of illness and three death within the U.S., while no illness or deaths have yet been reported from the tainted hummus.

However, while the news of the food recalls have been a spotlight in the media, Dr. Brendan Jackson, a medical epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), said in a recent article that the number of severe cases of Listeria is “actually rare.”

In fact, the pathogen causes about 1,600 infections and about three to four outbreaks a year in the U.S. This relates to approximately 260 deaths yearly, far fewer than the number linked to Salmonella, another foodborne illness.

Of the previous illnesses and deaths linked to outbreaks of Listeria, most of them have occurred in soft cheese and ready-to-eat meats, especially hot dogs and deli meats, making the occurrence of the pathogen in ice cream “very surprising,” Dr. Jackson said in the article.

“The bacteria are usually associated with failure to keep foods cool enough or keeping foods too long. For example, open packages of hot dogs or deli meats should not be kept for more than three to five days,” Dr. Jackson said. “If you keep them longer, the risk of harboring bacteria such as Listeria increases significantly,” he added.

However, what makes Listeria unique is that it can grow in refrigerated conditions and is capable of living in a food processing facility for years.

“Most people who eat food contaminated by Listeria won’t become very ill. They can have nausea, vomiting, muscle ache and diarrhea,” Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City said in the article. However, there is a more invasive type of illness that can affect people with weakened immune systems, such as those who have HIV, diabetes, heart disease, pregnant women, infants and the elderly,” he added.

“The question is, why are we seeing this amount of contamination?” Glatter said. “This type of contamination may just lurk in prepared foods,” he explained.

So, what can you do to help prevent Listeria in your home? Besides avoiding recalled food items, the CDC suggests the following precautions for safe food handling and storage:

  • Rinse all fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly
  • Scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, with a produce brush
  • Dry produce with a clean cloth or paper towel
  • Separate uncooked meats and poultry from vegetables, cooked foods and ready-to-eat foods
  • Wash hands, knives, countertops and cutting boards after handling uncooked foods
  • Be aware that Listeria can grow in foods in the refrigerator.
  • Clean up all spills in the refrigerator, especially juices from hot dog and lunch meat packages, raw meat and raw poultry
  • Clean refrigerator walls and shelves
  • Cook meat and poultry thoroughly
  • Do not drink or cook with unpasteurized milk

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