Listeriosis: 10 Ways to Protect Yourself

Listeria is more likely to cause death than other bacteria that cause food poisoning. Here, 10 ways you can reduce your risk of infection

Food-borne illnesses affect up to 13 million Canadians, or more than 40 per cent of the population, each year according to public health experts.

Listeriosis, considered to be more severe than other forms of food poisoning, can cause brain damage and even death. It is caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes (commonly known as Listeria), which is found in soil, vegetation, water, sewage and the feces of animals and humans.

Symptoms often severe

Symptoms of an infection are often more severe than other forms of food poisoning and can include nausea, vomiting, cramps, diarrhea, headache, constipation, and persistent fever. If it spreads to the nervous system, symptoms may also include severe headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions. After eating contaminated food, symptoms usually appear within two to 30 days, but can take as long as 90 days.

Listeria is more likely to cause death than other bacteria that cause food poisoning. In fact, 20 to 30 per cent of food-borne Listeriosis infections in high-risk individuals may be fatal, according to Health Canada.

Those most at risk are people of advanced age, pregnant women, newborns, and adults with weakened immune systems, such as chemotherapy or organ transplant patients.

NEXT: 10 ways to protect yourself

10 ways to protect yourself

Reduce your risk of contracting Listeriosis (as well as other food-borne illnesses) by following these 10 steps.

– Read and follow all package labels and instructions on food preparation and storage.

– After handling foods, especially raw foods such as meat and fish, thoroughly clean and sanitize all surfaces used for food preparation with a kitchen sanitizer or a bleach solution (5 ml household bleach to 750 ml of water), and rinse with water.

– To avoid cross-contamination, clean all knives, cutting boards and utensils used with raw food before using them again.

– Thoroughly clean fruits and vegetables before you eat them. (See Keep healthy foods healthy.)

– Refrigerate or freeze perishable food, prepared food and leftovers within two hours.

– Defrost food in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave, but never at room temperature.

– Keep leftovers for a maximum of four days only and reheat them to an internal temperature of 74°C (165°F) before eating them.

– Check the temperature in your refrigerator using a thermometer to make sure it is at 4°C (40°F) or below. As the storage temperature increases, so does the growth of Listeria in foods.

– Frequently wash and disinfect the refrigerator. This will make it less likely for Listeria to be transferred from contaminated food and surfaces to non-contaminated foods.

– Avoid certain foods (see below) or heat them to reduce your risk.

Unlike most bacteria, Listeria can survive and grow on foods being stored in the refrigerator — but it can be killed off by using proper cooking techniques. Note: Foods that are contaminated with Listeria look, smell and taste normal.

NEXT: Foods to Watch Out For

Foods to watch out for

You can lower your risk of Listeriosis by avoiding certain foods such as hot dogs, especially if you’re in the habit of eating them straight from the package. (The fluid in hot dog packages may contain more Listeria than the hot dogs.) Before eating, hot dogs should be cooked thoroughly until steaming hot.

Non-dried deli meats also carry a higher risk of Listeriosis. (However, dried and salted deli meats such as salami and pepperoni generally do not support the growth of Listeria.) As with hot dogs, you can reduce your risk by reheating deli-meats until steaming hot.

Other foods to be wary of include:

– Soft and semi-soft cheeses such as feta, Brie, Camembert and blue-veined cheese if they are made from unpasteurized milk.

– Refrigerated pâté and meat spreads.

– Refrigerated smoked seafood and fish.

– Raw or undercooked meat, poultry and fish.

If you’re worried you may have eaten a contaminated product but do not have any symptoms, no tests are required, according to Health Canada. However, if you do become ill with fever or serious illness, contact your health care provider and mention your possible exposure. (See the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) website for the most current list of food recalls.)

For more information on Listeria go to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency fact sheet, Food Safety Facts on Listeria.

Sources: Health Canada, Canadian Food Inspection Agency, U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Mayo Clinic.

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