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Beware Those Cravings

Rare, but Dangerous

Everyone Needs to Know

But you don't have to be a fetus or pregnant to fall ill at the hands of Listeria. The bacterium sickens about 2,500 people and kills about 500 people per year, according to the CDC. In fact, the General Accounting Office lists Listeria as the leading cause of death among food-borne pathogens.

"Luckily, these food hazards are relatively rare, but they can have very devastating consequences," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, PhD, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

It starts with mild, flu-like symptoms that most people, like Lenkersdorf, dismiss. Few people seek immediate treatment because they don't know they have it. But if diagnosed early enough, antibiotics can prevent transmission of the infection to a fetus, doctors say.

Just Avoid It

Cold, even near freezing, temperatures do not easily subdue Listeria. So while the average refrigerator, maintaining the otherwise safe 35-40 degrees Fahrenheit, can stop most other food-borne pathogens -- including the notorious E. coli -- from proliferating, time in the cold box doesn't halt Listeria.

"If you put a package of [tainted] hot dogs in the refrigerator for several weeks, a very small level of Listeria can grow into a serious contamination," says Catherine Donnelly, PhD, a food microbiologist at the University of Vermont.

DeWaal offers the following tips:

  • Consume only milk products made from pasteurized milk.
  • Avoid pâtés; soft cheeses such as Brie, Camembert, and feta; and blue-veined cheeses such as Roquefort.
  • Cook all raw meat thoroughly. Do not sample meat while cooking.
  • Keep raw meats separate from vegetables, cooked foods, and ready-to-eat foods.
  • Reheat leftovers and ready-to-eat foods such as cold cuts until they are steaming.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables vigorously under running water.

Rochelle Jones is a writer based in Bethesda, Md. She has covered health and medicine for The New York Daily News and The St. Petersburg Times.

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