Food Safety during Pregnancy

Q: How common is illness from Listeria?

A: In the United States, an estimated 2,500 people become seriously ill with listeriosis each year. Of those, 500 die. Pregnant women are about 20 times more likely to get listeriosis than other healthy adults. Rates of listeriosis may be underreported, because symptoms can take up to two months to appear, and miscarriages and premature births caused by listeriosis might never be linked to the bacterium. While healthy people might be able to fight off a bout of listeriosis (or not get sick at all), someone pregnant or immune-compromised could face serious illness or death from the same meal.


Q: Is it safe to eat deli meats during my pregnancy if I buy them from a reputable source?

A: Regardless of the source, you should always re-heat deli meats (like turkey and ham) to steaming before eating if you are pregnant. Unlike many bacteria, Listeria can live in refrigerated conditions and on metal and plastic surfaces (such as meat slicers and food packaging). Unless food contact surfaces are properly cleaned and sanitized between each contact with food items, they can easily become re-contaminated with the bacteria. Even a reputable grocer or butcher may have difficulty completely eliminating Listeria from food contact surfaces. Prepackaged deli meats are somewhat less risky because they aren’t handled at the retail level, but if something went wrong in processing, Listeria could still be present. If you prefer deli meat cold, try this: re-heat the meat to steaming and then cover and chill the meat on a clean plate in the fridge before eating. Avoid purchasing cold deli salads (such as egg salad and chicken salad) since they can’t be re-heated and could be contaminated with Listeria.

Q: Can I safely eat soft cheeses during pregnancy?

A: Avoid soft cheeses during pregnancy. Because Listeria can live and multiply on plastic surfaces and even in refrigerators, the bacteria can be present on cheese packaging or in the grocer’s dairy case—even if the cheese was made using pasteurized milk and especially if it is raw milk cheese. That contamination can be easily passed into the product when it is opened.

Q: Can I eat Caesar salad dressing or cookie dough ice cream during my pregnancy?

A: Processed foods such as bottled salad dressing and cookie dough ice cream are made with pasteurized eggs and thus are safe for consumption. Caesar dressings prepared in restaurants, cookie or cake dough prepared at home, and other dishes containing raw eggs are too dangerous for a pregnant woman.

Q: I thought fish was good for me, so why should I limit certain kinds of seafood during my pregnancy?

A: Some fish and shellfish contain higher levels of mercury that may harm an unborn baby’s nervous system and should not be eaten: shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. Choosing low-mercury seafood while you’re pregnant will still allow you to receive important health benefits (high-quality protein and omega-3 fatty acids). It is important to avoid the harmful effects of mercury by eating only seafood low in mercury. If you eat tuna, choose canned light tuna over albacore. Other lower-mercury seafood are shrimp, salmon, pollock, and catfish.


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