A recent outbreak of the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes in ice cream has demonstrated how challenging it can be to prevent foodborne illness.
About 1,600 people in the United States get sick from listeria each year, and it is the third leading cause of death from food poisoning. Listeriosis, the illness associated with listeria, mainly affects the elderly, pregnant women, newborns or individuals with weakened immune systems.
LSU AgCenter food safety expert Wenqing Xu said a problem with listeria is that it can grow in a refrigerator and live in a freezer, as the ice cream outbreak showed.
“People think food is safe because it is in their refrigerator or freezer, but it may not be,” Xu said.
Listeria also can contaminate foods that are not normally cooked, such as deli meats, cheeses, spouts, unpasteurized dairy products, fruits and vegetables.
Xu said listeria is found in soil, water and plants and can be tracked into a manufacturing facility, carried by animals or spread by employees who don’t follow proper sanitation practices.
In the case of listeria in ice cream, it could have been caused by any number of factors, such as contaminated manufacturing equipment or ingredients, she said.
Xu pointed to an outbreak of listeria in 2011 linked to cantaloupe. She said good sanitation can help prevent illness.
Because cantaloupe rind is so thin, it is easy to transfer listeria on the skin of the fruit into the flesh when cutting it, she said.
“You must wash firm produce with a brush before cutting it,” Xu said.
Other ways to avoid listeria include:
– Washing fruits and vegetables under running water just before eating, cutting or cooking.
– Scrubbing firm produce such as melons and cucumbers with a clean produce brush.
– Avoiding unpasteurized milk and soft cheeses unless they are made with pasteurized milk.
– Keeping your refrigerator at 40 degrees or lower and the freezer at 0 degrees or lower.
– Wrapping or covering foods with a sheet of plastic wrap or foil or put foods in plastic bags or clean, covered containers before placing them in the refrigerator. Make certain foods do not leak juices onto other foods.
– Cleaning your refrigerator regularly, especially when juices spill from hot dog and lunch meat packages, raw meat or raw poultry.
– Washing your hands and cleaning kitchen surfaces often. This also helps prevent illnesses caused by other foodborne pathogens
Xu also warns against consuming any recalled products even if you ate part of the product and experienced no adverse symptoms. Throw away recalled products or return them to their place of purchase.
Symptoms of can vary, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a person with listeriosis usually has fever and muscle aches, sometimes preceded by diarrhea or other gastrointestinal symptoms.
Source: Louisiana State University AgCenter