So there you are savoring the creamy deliciousness of your bowl of ice cream. You take a little scoop and carefully lift it from the bowl to your mouth. Then another scoop. Then another. “Mmmmm. Yum, yum,” you say. “This is the best way to beat the summer heat.”
But days later, you develop a fever and a throbbing headache. So you ask your husband to drive you to the hospital. Good thing he did. The hospital folks discover that you are infected with a bacteria called Listeria monocytogenes. With their help, you eventually trace the damn bacteria to the delicious ice cream you’ve been eating.
You survived the health scare but are still left wondering about the impact of the ice cream listeria infection on your pregnancy. Did the bad bacteria infect your baby or is he safe in his womb sanctuary? Will you carry him to term? You can’t help asking these and similar questions.
Ice cream listeria infections are hogging the media headlines these days following a recall by Blue Bell Creameries of its ice cream products because of listeria contamination which led to the death of three patients.
The Kansas Department of Health has some details:
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) has been working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) to investigate an outbreak of listeriosis cases in five adult Kansas residents linked to ice cream consumed from Blue Bell Creameries. Listeriosis is a serious infection usually caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes.
Five people in Kansas have become ill as part of this outbreak and three deaths have been reported. Patients became ill with listeriosis after hospitalizations for unrelated causes at the same hospital. They became ill between January 2014 and January 2015 after a majority were known to have consumed Blue Bell Creameries ice cream at the hospital.
Following the Blue Bell recall, another company — Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream — also recalled its products after a random sample tested positive for listeria. With the way things are going, don’t be surprised if more ice cream companies follow suit.
So what’s the listeria bacteria doing in your ice cream? Apparently, Listeria monocytogenes likes cold places. Says Dr. Robert Tauxe who retired from the CDC, “It likes places that are cold and wet and where there is something it can grow on. Unfortunately, food factories with good refrigeration systems are a place Listeria is known to hang out. It takes some care and it takes specifically looking for it and disinfecting when it is found. It is a challenge to many food factories.”
So does the bacteria live in other cold food other than ice cream? Yes it does. According to the UK NHS, the listeria bacteria have been found in chilled ready-to-eat food such as the following:
- pre-packed sandwiches
- soft cheeses – such as Brie or Camembert, or others with a similar rind
- soft blue cheese
- cooked sliced meats
- smoked salmon
- unpasteurised milk
- dairy products made from unpasteurised milk
Listeria is also found in fruits and vegetables.
Are You at Risk of Listeria Infection or Listeriosis? The listeria bacteria may be found in our food but not all of us are at high risk of infection. Those who are specially vulnerable to listeriosis include:
- people over 65 years of age
- pregnant women and their unborn babies
- babies less than one month old
- people with immune systems weakened by cancer, cancer treatments, or other serious conditions (like diabetes, kidney failure, liver disease, and HIV)
Healthy adults are rarely at risk of listeriosis but they can get sick if they are exposed to a large dose of Listeria monocytogenes.
Signs and Symptoms of Listerioris. The CDC lists the following symptoms of listeria infection:
Pregnant women: Pregnant women typically experience only fever, and other non-specific symptoms like chills and headache. However, infection during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, or life-threatening infection of the newborn.
Higher-risk people other than pregnant women: Symptoms can include fever, muscle aches, headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions.
Preventing Listeria Infection. If you are at risk of listeria infection, following these preventive measures suggested by the FDA will go a long way in keeping the bacteria at bay:
- Rinse raw produce, such as fruits and vegetables, thoroughly under running tap water before eating, cutting, or cooking. Even if the produce will be peeled, it should still be washed first.
- Scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, with a clean produce brush.
- Dry the produce with a clean cloth or paper towel.
- Separate uncooked meats and poultry from vegetables, cooked foods, and ready-to-eat foods.
KITCHEN SAFETY AND CLEANLINESS:
- Wash hands, knives, countertops, and cutting boards after handling and preparing uncooked foods.
- Be aware that Listeria monocytogenes can grow in foods in the refrigerator. Use an appliance thermometer, such as a refrigerator thermometer, to check the temperature inside your refrigerator. The refrigerator should be 40°F or lower and the freezer 0°F or lower.
- Clean up all spills in your refrigerator right away–especially juices from hot dog and lunch meat packages, raw meat, and raw poultry.
- Clean the inside walls and shelves of your refrigerator with hot water and liquid soap, then rinse.
COOKING MEAT AND POULTRY: Thoroughly cook raw food from animal sources, such as beef, pork, or poultry to a safe internal temperature.
FOOD STORAGE: Use precooked or ready-to-eat food as soon as you can. Do not store the product in the refrigerator beyond the use-by date.
MILK: Do not drink raw (unpasteurized) milk, and do not eat foods that have unpasteurized milk in them.
SPECIFIC RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PERSONS AT HIGH RISK (pregnant women, persons with weakened immune systems, and older adults):
- Do not eat hot dogs, luncheon meats, cold cuts, other deli meats (e.g., bologna), or fermented or dry sausages unless they are heated to an internal temperature of 165°F or until steaming hot just before serving.
- Avoid getting fluid from hot dog and lunch meat packages on other foods, utensils, and food preparation surfaces, and wash hands after handling hot dogs, luncheon meats, and deli meats.
- Pay attention to labels. Do not eat refrigerated pâté or meat spreads from a deli or meat counter or from the refrigerated section of a store. Foods that do not need refrigeration, like canned or shelf-stable pâté and meat spreads, are safe to eat. Refrigerate after opening.
- Do not eat soft cheese such as feta, queso blanco, queso fresco, brie, Camembert, blue-veined, or panela (queso panela) unless it is labeled as made with pasteurized milk.
- Do not eat refrigerated smoked seafood, unless it is contained in a cooked dish, such as a casserole, or unless it is a canned or shelf-stable product.