Beware Those Cravings

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Rare, but Dangerous

By Rochelle Jones
WebMD Feature

Dec. 25, 2000 -- Mary Lenkersdorf never suspected that her deli cravings would land her in the hospital and endanger her baby. Just four months into her pregnancy, the West Palm Beach, Fla., resident often craved hot dogs, cold cuts, and blue cheese. High-fat foods indeed, Lenkersdorf knew. But who cared? She was "eating for two," after all.

But when she began bleeding heavily, she discovered that the foods she was choosing could make a big difference. What started with a headache and a little nausea and fatigue ended in the emergency room, where doctors could do little to save her baby. She miscarried the next day.

Unbeknownst to her, Lenkersdorf had infected her developing child with bacteria known as Listeria. It had been in the food she had eaten and had gained access to her fetus by penetrating the placenta.

"I'm very angry that no one warned me," says Lenkersdorf, now 35. "Doctors aren't telling women the things they need to know about Listeria."

While difficult to estimate, food-borne Listeria infection occurs in about 825 pregnant women every year, accounting for one-third of all food-borne Listeria cases, according to a study published in the journal Listeria, Listerosis and Food Safety. Among those women, about 15 die every year. Of the remainder, many miscarry or their babies are born with birth defects, which can include blindness and mental retardation.

In a step to spread the word and reduce the number of cases, the Clinton administration in May 2000 proposed new regulations that include systematic testing for Listeria at food-processing plants. Danger foods include undercooked meat, deli meats, smoked salmon, shellfish, pasteurized milk, tabouli salad, and semidry sausages.

On Dec. 22, the CDC reported that since May 2000, 29 illnesses caused by Listeria had been identified in 10 states. The 29 cases included four deaths and three miscarriages or stillbirths. Investigators from the Department of Agriculture determined that all the cases were caused by deli turkey meat from the same Texas manufacturer.

Everyone Needs to Know

But you don't have to be a fetus or pregnant to fall ill at the hands of Listeria. The bacterium sickens about 2,500 people and kills about 500 people per year, according to the CDC. In fact, the General Accounting Office lists Listeria as the leading cause of death among food-borne pathogens.

"Luckily, these food hazards are relatively rare, but they can have very devastating consequences," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, PhD, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

It starts with mild, flu-like symptoms that most people, like Lenkersdorf, dismiss. Few people seek immediate treatment because they don't know they have it. But if diagnosed early enough, antibiotics can prevent transmission of the infection to a fetus, doctors say.

Just Avoid It

Cold, even near freezing, temperatures do not easily subdue Listeria. So while the average refrigerator, maintaining the otherwise safe 35-40 degrees Fahrenheit, can stop most other food-borne pathogens -- including the notorious E. coli -- from proliferating, time in the cold box doesn't halt Listeria.

"If you put a package of [tainted] hot dogs in the refrigerator for several weeks, a very small level of Listeria can grow into a serious contamination," says Catherine Donnelly, PhD, a food microbiologist at the University of Vermont.

DeWaal offers the following tips:

  • Consume only milk products made from pasteurized milk.
  • Avoid pâtés; soft cheeses such as Brie, Camembert, and feta; and blue-veined cheeses such as Roquefort.
  • Cook all raw meat thoroughly. Do not sample meat while cooking.
  • Keep raw meats separate from vegetables, cooked foods, and ready-to-eat foods.
  • Reheat leftovers and ready-to-eat foods such as cold cuts until they are steaming.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables vigorously under running water.

Rochelle Jones is a writer based in Bethesda, Md. She has covered health and medicine for The New York Daily News and The St. Petersburg Times.


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