Foodborne illness (often referred to as food poisoning) is a sickness that occurs from consuming a food or beverage that is contaminated by a harmful microorganism such as bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Did you know that pregnant women and their unborn babies are at higher risk for foodborne illness? This is due to the altered and developing immune system of the mother and unborn baby respectively, which makes it more difficult to fight off the harmful pathogen. There are two microorganisms in particular that require extra precaution as they can be especially harmful to the fetus and can cause harm even if the mom-to-be doesn’t feel sick. These microorganisms are Listeria monocytogenes and Toxoplasma gondii.
Listeria monocytogenes is a harmful bacterium that causes listeriosis. Listeria can be found in refrigerated, ready-to-eat foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, unpasteurized milk and milk products or foods made with unpasteurized milk, and produce harvested from soil that has been contaminated with Listeria. Pregnant women are about ten times more likely to get listeriosis than other healthy adults, and studies show that pregnant Hispanic women have a higher incidence of listeriosis than non-Hispanic women likely due to the consumption of traditional foods made from unpasteurized milk. In severe cases, listeriosis may cause miscarriage, premature labor, the delivery of a low-birth-weight infant, and death of the mother or infant.
Symptoms of listeriosis can take a few days to weeks to appear and may include:
Diarrhea or upset stomach
Loss of balance
Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite that causes toxoplasmosis. It can be found in raw and undercooked meat, unwashed fruits and vegetables, contaminated water, dust, soil, and dirty cat litter boxes. Due to this, special precautions need to be taken if you have a cat. Toxoplasmosis can be difficult to detect as only 10% of women infected have noticeable symptoms. Toxoplasmosis can cause hearing loss, intellectual disability, blindness, and problems with brain or eye development in babies and children.
Since prevention is key to avoiding the harmful effects of listeriosis, toxoplasmosis, and other foodborne illnesses, there are four general food safety principles that should be followed by everyone which are clean, separate, cook, and chill. It is also important to clean the fridge regularly by using hot water and a mild liquid dishwashing detergent to clean the inside walls and shelves and check expiration and “use by” dates once a week to throw away foods when the date has passed. Moms-to-be in particular should avoid eating:
Raw or undercooked meat, poultry, fish, or shellfish
Refrigerated smoked fish
Partially cooked seafood
King mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, tilefish, tuna (fish highest in mercury)
Foods that contain raw/undercooked eggs
Unwashed fruits and vegetables
Soft cheeses (feta, brie, camembert, queso fresco, etc.)
Hot dogs, deli, and luncheon meats (unless they have been reheated until steaming hot)
Deli salads prepared without preservatives
Unpasteurized, refrigerated pates or meat spreads
While foodborne illness during pregnancy can be scary and food safety is of the utmost importance, following the food safety guidelines and avoiding the foods commonly associated with listeriosis and toxoplasmosis is an effective way to ensure the safety of you and your baby.
Written by: Jaclyn Klayman, Wellness Workdays Dietetic Intern