Listeria 101: What You Need to Know

Dangerous bacteria can lead to food poisoning

It’s the season for picnic eats like hot dogs, deli sandwiches and salads.

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It may also be a prime time for food-borne illness caused by the bacteria Listeria, which can be found in common foods like these. Listeria is the third leading cause of death from food poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). An estimated 1,600 people get listeriosis each year, and about 260 die.

Symptoms of Listeria infection

Listeriosis is a serious infection caused by eating food contaminated with Listeria. The disease primarily affects and is dangerous to pregnant women and their babies, people with weakened immune systems and those over 65.

Listeriosis symptoms include:

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  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Headaches and muscle aches
  • Fever
  • Nausea and vomiting

Foods that can be contaminated by Listeria

Susan Rehm, MD, treats infectious diseases at Cleveland Clinic. She says the bacteria can show up in common foods, including:

  • Raw foods like uncooked meats and vegetables
  • Hot dogs
  • Deli meats and salads (both prepackaged and served at deli counters)
  • Soft cheeses
  • Unpasteurized raw milk and cheeses

6 steps to protect from contamination

Listeria is unlike many other germs because it can grow even in the cold temperature of the refrigerator.

“You need to be careful of refrigeration of produce,” says Dr. Rehm. “Keep the temperature of the refrigerator at less than 40 degrees.”

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Other steps to take to help protect your food:

  1. Rinse raw produce thoroughly under running tap water before eating, cutting or cooking — even if they’re to be peeled
  2. Scrub firm produce like melons and cucumbers with a produce brush
  3. Dry produce with clean cloth or paper towel
  4. Wash hands, utensils, counters and cutting boards after handling uncooked foods
  5. Clean up all spills in fridge right away, especially juices from hot dogs, lunch meats, raw meat and poultry
  6. Thoroughly cook raw foods from animal sources to a safe internal temperature

Thoroughly cleaning your countertops of excess soil and water is essential, too, in decreasing the risk of Listeria contamination, adds Dr. Rehm.

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