With food recalls and listeria outbreaks occurring regularly, it’s important for pregnant women to protect themselves.
Your physician probably told you to nix unpasteurized cheeses, deli meats and sushi while you’re pregnant to avoid listeriosis, a serious infection caused by eating food contaminated with the bacteria listeria monocytogenes.
You can be exposed to listeria at any time in your life but during pregnancy the risk is higher. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate 14 percent of cases occur during pregnancy. What’s more, pregnant women are approximately 13 times more likely to be infected.
If you’re exposed to listeria or another pathogen when you’re pregnant, it could put you and your baby at risk for serious complications, said Dr. Alane Park, an OB/GYN at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles. Since listeria crosses the placenta, it can cause miscarriage, pre-term labor, stillbirth, or serious illness or death in your newborn.
Symptoms of listeriosis can mimic the flu: fever, chills, headache, body aches and gastrointestinal symptoms. Loss of balance and confusion can occur as well. What’s more, since symptoms can take days or even weeks to develop, you could be putting you and your baby at risk and not even know it.
The good news is that listeriosis during pregnancy is more rare than women often fear, Park said. Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to take some steps to avoid being exposed so you can protect yourself and your baby. Here are 12.
1. Avoid certain foods.
Experts agree pregnant women should avoid anything raw and unpasteurized like milk, cheese and even cider.
“Pasteurization kills the germs that can sometimes be found in these foods,” said Hank Lambert, CEO of PURE Bioscience. Other foods to avoid include:
• Raw, rare or undercooked meat, poultry and fish.
• Hot dogs
• Lunch meats or cold cuts heated to less than 165 degrees
• Refrigerated pâté meat spreads
• Smoked seafood
• Undercooked eggs or dishes with eggs, like Hollandaise sauce
• Raw sprouts
2. Use common sense.
For some women who feel comfortable giving into a sushi craving, it’s probably ok to eat as long as you trust the restaurant and know that the food has been properly handled or heated properly, Park said. “I don’t want my patients feeling paranoid that they can’t eat anything.”
3. Wash your hands.
With proper hand washing using soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds, you can eliminate half of the risk of contracting a foodborne illness, Lambert said. Whether you’re cooking or putting your groceries away, be sure to wash your hands before, during and after handling food.
4. Avoid spreading bacteria.
Use separate cutting boards for meat and vegetables and replace those that have deep grooves because bacteria can harbor in between. Microwave wet sponges in the microwave for 1 to 2 minutes daily and replace them regularly.
5. Clean all surfaces.
Make sure you always clean and disinfect cutting boards, countertops, utensils, and compartments in the refrigerator where bacteria can linger.
“It’s cool enough to keep food from spoiling but not enough to keep bacteria from growing,” said Cheryl Luptowski, home safety expert at NSF International.
6. Use a food thermometer.
Cook food at a temperature of 160 degrees or higher and always use a food thermometer even if the recipe calls for a specific cook time.
7. Wrap it up.
As soon as you cook a meal, put it in the refrigerator. Hosting a party? “The danger zone for bacteria growth is between 40 and 140 degrees, so you don’t want to leave food out for more than 2 hours,” Lambert said.
8. Keep your refrigerator cold.
Set your refrigerator to 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below and the freezer at zero. Since different parts of the refrigerator can be colder than others, it’s a good idea to also use a refrigerator thermometer.
9. Scrub fruits and vegetables.
Always wash produce that hasn’t been pre-washed, whether it’s packed or not. Even foods that have an inedible skin like bananas and cantaloupe should be washed under cold running water or with a dedicated vegetable brush because bacteria can live on the surface and be transferred when you cut into them, Luptowski said.
10. Shop smart.
“It’s important to keep raw foods separated from cooked foods and also raw foods separated from each other,” Lambert said.
Put fruits and veggies and poultry, meat, and fish in separate plastic bags and use re-usable bags dedicated by food type. Be sure to keep food in separate bags in the refrigerator too.
11. Check for food recalls.
Look on foodsafety.gov for recent recalls or look for notices at your grocery store.
12. Use green cleaning products.
“Most of the sanitizers and disinfectants that are in use today are highly toxic,” Lambert said.
In fact, according to research presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society last year, pregnant women and their fetuses are exposed to triclosan and triclocarban, two chemicals found in household products that are linked to reproductive and developmental problems. To avoid harmful chemicals, look for the EPA’s Design for the Environment (DfE) label on products.
Julie Revelant is a health journalist and a consultant who provides content marketing and copywriting services for the healthcare industry. She's also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.