Here’s How You Should Be Protecting Your Family Against Listeria

Every time we check the news, it seems as if there's a food recall happening. Find out how to avoid succumbing to one of the main culprits–listeria–with these tips.

3D illustration of bacterium Listeria monocytogenesPhoto: Shutterstock / Kateryna Kon
Photo: Shutterstock / Kateryna Kon

Word spreads like wildfire every time there’s a food recall. The concern is for good reason: Foodborne bacteria, including listeria, can be deadly.

We’re so vigilant when it comes to working with raw meats (you’re prepping your chicken correctly, right?), but it turns out that produce and other products also can harbor harmful germs. Find out how to avoid listeria, one of the main culprits, with these tips.

What Is Listeria?

Found in soil and water, these bacteria can contaminate livestock and crops. But farms aren’t the only place where listeria outbreaks start. The germs also can grow and spread in food processing plants.

A listeria outbreak is serious business. Not only can it cause flu-like symptoms and gastrointestinal distress, but it also can lead to neurological issues. To those in the high-risk category—the elderly, people with compromised immune systems and pregnant women and newborns—an outbreak, called listeriosis, can have devastating consequences. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1,600 people become infected by listeria every year, and about 260 of those die.

How to Avoid Listeria

The common contenders that may be contaminated with listeria are all over your grocery store. Here are some of the main ones, plus common-sense ways of reducing your risk.

  • Milk and soft cheeses, like Brie and feta, happen to be the worst for breeding listeria. Always look for the word “pasteurized” on the label, and if in doubt, don’t buy it. Keep in mind that most dairy products in U.S. grocery stores are pasteurized—a bit of a relief.
  • Sealed (read: never opened) cold cuts and hot dogs can be kept in your refrigerator for up to two weeks. Once unsealed, you have seven days, as long as it’s still within the use-by date on the packaging—same goes for freshly sliced meat from the deli counter. Good news: If your schedule demands protein with a longer shelf life, try canned tuna, salmon or mackerel. These can’t be contaminated. (Tuna melt, anyone?)
  • Sprouts are sometimes the source of an outbreak. (We’re talking about little sprouted seeds, like alfalfa and bean sprouts, not Brussels sprouts.) Because they lose a lot of their crunch when cooked, you may want to skip them altogether. But if you must have your bean sprout fix, toss them into your pad thai and let them cook through before chowing down.
  • If you love melon, and I do, make sure that cut melon is kept in the refrigerator for no longer than seven days. And once it’s at room temperature, make sure it’s only out for a maximum of four hours. Use it (in this cucumber-melon smoothie, perhaps) or lose it.

These aren’t the only foods to watch. Recently, broccoli, cauliflower and asparagus were to blame. In short, the safest thing you can do during a listeria outbreak is to cook your food to kill any possible bacteria. Doing so will help ensure that you and your family are safe and sound.

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Cheryl Doherty
I have a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. I am a writing coach. Sometimes clients come to me to me because they want to write a book, develop content for their website and others discover they wanted to understand a personal situation better, and writing for them acts as a form of therapy. I worked in corporate marketing for ten years and have been a digital marketer developing websites and web content for a further ten. I love adventure. I love to travel. I love to cook with fresh ingredients. I love all things native. My family live in British Columbia. I live in Wales, UK with my two sons. This year we travelled for four months around BC, Canada. We broke out of our comfort zone and lived. It's something that I want to do again and again.