Listeriosis and Food Safety Tips

Listeriosis is an illness caused by eating foods contaminated with a kind of bacteria, often found in soil and water, called Listeria monocytogenes.  
Most people do not get listeriosis. However, pregnant women and newborns, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems caused by cancer treatments, AIDS, diabetes, kidney disease and others, are at risk for becoming seriously ill from eating foods that contain Listeria monocytogenes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 1,100 people in the United States report serious illness from listeriosis each year. Of those reporting, approximately 25% die as a result of the illness.  

How do Listeria monocytogenes get into food? 

Animals can carry Listeria monocytogenes in their intestines without becoming sick. As a result, the bacteria may be spread to meat and dairy products. Listeria monocytogenes are killed by cooking or by other heating methods, such as pasteurization, used to produce  ready-to-eat foods. However, ready-to-eat food can become contaminated after processing within the processing plant or along the route from the plant to your plate.  

Outbreaks of listeriosis are associated with ready-to-eat foods such as hot dogs, luncheon meats, cold cuts, fermented or dry sausage, and other deli-style meat and poultry. In the home, Listeria monocytogenes are destroyed if ready-to-eat foods are reheated to steaming hot. 

How do you know if you have listeriosis? 

Listeriosis has flu-like symptoms, such as fever and chills. Sometimes people have an upset stomach, but not always. If the infection spreads to the nervous system, symptoms such as headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, or convulsions can occur.  

While infected pregnant women may experience only mild, flu-like illness, the mother’s illness can be transmitted to the fetus through the placenta. This can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, or serious health problems for the newborn child.  

It takes an average of three weeks for someone to become ill. If you are an at-risk individual and/or have symptoms that concern you, consult your physician. Listeriosis can be treated with antibiotics.  

What at-risk consumers can do to prevent listeriosis and other food-borne illness 

People at risk for listeriosis and their family members or individuals preparing food for them should:  

  • Reheat until steaming hot the following types of ready-to-eat foods -- hot dogs, luncheon meats, cold cuts, fermented and dry sausage, and other deli-style meat and poultry products. Thoroughly reheating food can help kill any bacteria that might be present. If you cannot reheat these foods, do not eat them. 
  • Wash hands with hot, soapy water after handling these types of ready-to-eat foods. Wash for at least 20 seconds. Also wash cutting boards, dishes, and utensils. Thorough washing helps eliminate any bacteria that might get on your hands or other surfaces from food before it is reheated. 
  • Don’t eat soft cheeses such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined or Mexican-style cheese. You can eat hard cheeses, processed cheeses, cream cheese, cottage cheese, and yogurt. 
  • Do not drink raw, unpasteurized milk or eat foods made from it, such as unpasteurized cheese. 
  • Observe all expiration dates for perishable items that are precooked or ready-to-eat.

All consumers should follow the four simple steps to food safety listed below:  

  • Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often with hot, soapy water. Because Listeria monocytogenes can slowly grow at refrigerator temperatures, always use hot, soapy water to clean up liquid that spills in the refrigerator -- including spills from packages of luncheon meats and hot dogs. Always wash hands, cutting boards, dishes, and utensils with hot, soapy water after they come in contact with raw food.
  • Separate: Don’t cross-contaminate. Ready-to-eat foods and raw meat, poultry, and seafood can contain dangerous bacteria. As a result, keep these foods separate from vegetables, fruits, breads, and other foods that are already prepared for eating.
  • Cook: Cook to safe temperatures. If you are at risk for listeriosis, reheat luncheon meats, cold cuts, and other deli-style meat and poultry until they are steaming hot.
  • Chill: Refrigerate or freeze perishables, including ready-to-eat foods, within two hours.

What to do if you have food that has been recalled because of Listeria monocytogenes? 
Do not eat any food that recalled and ordered off grocery store shelves. Return recalled food to the place where you bought it. 

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