Don’t forget to wash your fruits and vegetables before eating them. A sobering reminder about the importance of doing this comes from Texas where the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes was recently found in bags of chopped celery sent to restaurants, schools, and other institutions. Fortunately, the plant was temporarily closed, and none of the tainted celery was sold to consumers. Still, this could happen anywhere – at any processing plant – and consumers could be harmed. This has happened in the past and is occurring with increasing frequency these days. Food-borne illness is on the rise.
Listeria Contamination of Fresh Produce: What is Listeria?
Listeria is a type of bacterium found in soil, water, feces, and food. When a person eats listeria contaminated food they don’t always get listeria food poisoning, because the immune system recognizes the bacteria and keeps in in check. But listeria food poisoning can cause serious problem for people with poorly functioning immune systems, older people, pregnant women, young children, and people taking drugs that suppress the immune system – including oral steroids. When it does, the listeria illness called listeriosis can occur, which has a fatality rate as high as 25%.
Listeria is found in unpasteurized foods and uncooked meats. Vegetables such as celery come into contact with it through the soil and from animals that carry the bacteria. Factories and plants that package food can be a source of infection when they don’t practice good sanitation. Deli meats, hot dogs, and other packaged proteins are the foods mostly commonly contaminated with listeria.
Listeria Illness: How Serious is Listeria Food Poisoning?
In a person whose immune system can’t fight off listeria, it only takes a small number of bacteria to cause infection. Once the infection “takes hold” it can affect a variety of organs including the eye, heart, and lungs, but it exerts its most serious effects on the nervous system. Symptoms of nervous system involvement include headache, high fever, stiff neck, difficulties with balance, and disorientation. It can also mimic meningitis or a bad case of flu – with fever, muscle aches, chills, and a persistent headache. A prompt diagnosis is important – and treatment with antibiotics is a must.
How to Prevent Listeria Food Poisoning
Pregnant women and anyone who has a weakened immune system should be aware of the symptoms of this infection and see a doctor if they occur. To prevent listeriosis, thoroughly wash fresh produce and store it in a refrigerator set to 40 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. Cook all food to recommended temperatures, and wash all utensils after they touch raw food. Pregnant women should avoid eating soft cheese and deli meat that’s not reheated.
It’s worth taking the time to thoroughly wash celery and other vegetables. In this day and age, you can’t afford not to.
Food Production Daily. “Texan produce plant shut down after listeria-tainted celery kills five”
Merck Manual. Eighteenth edition. 2006.
American Pregnancy Association. “Listeria and Pregnancy”