Beware Those Cravings
Rare, but Dangerous
Dec. 25, 2000 -- Mary Lenkersdorf never suspected that her deli
cravings would land her in the hospital and endanger her baby. Just four months
into her pregnancy, the West Palm Beach, Fla., resident often craved hot dogs,
cold cuts, and blue cheese. High-fat foods indeed, Lenkersdorf knew. But who
cared? She was "eating for two," after all.
But when she began bleeding heavily, she discovered that the
foods she was choosing could make a big difference. What started with a
headache and a little nausea and fatigue ended in the emergency room, where
doctors could do little to save her baby. She miscarried the next day.
Unbeknownst to her, Lenkersdorf had infected her developing
child with bacteria known as Listeria. It had been in the food she had eaten
and had gained access to her fetus by penetrating the placenta.
"I'm very angry that no one warned me," says
Lenkersdorf, now 35. "Doctors aren't telling women the things they need to
know about Listeria."
While difficult to estimate, food-borne Listeria infection
occurs in about 825 pregnant women every year, accounting for one-third of all
food-borne Listeria cases, according to a study published in the journal
Listeria, Listerosis and Food Safety. Among those women, about 15 die
every year. Of the remainder, many miscarry or their babies are born with birth
defects, which can include blindness and mental retardation.
In a step to spread the word and reduce the number of cases,
the Clinton administration in May 2000 proposed new regulations that include
systematic testing for Listeria at food-processing plants. Danger foods include
undercooked meat, deli meats, smoked salmon, shellfish, pasteurized milk,
tabouli salad, and semidry sausages.
On Dec. 22, the CDC reported that since May 2000, 29 illnesses
caused byListeria had been identified in 10 states. The 29 cases included four
deathsand three miscarriages or stillbirths. Investigators from the Department
of Agriculture determined that all the cases were caused by deliturkey meat
from the same Texas manufacturer.
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.