Deli Meats and Pregnancy

I love charcuterie.  And pizza. And sandwiches.  I’m now in my second pregnancy and there never ceases to be comments about what you can and cannot eat while you are pregnant.  I’ve often wondered why deli meats are singled out as something to avoid during pregnancy.  Surely the Italians don’t stop eating pizza!

Food poisoning during pregnancy

Food poisoning can occur in anyone and at anytime if contaminated food is eaten. There are many different bacteria, viruses or parasites that can cause food poisoning.  

Pregnant women are at increased risk of food poisoning because their immune system is weaker. If pregnant women get food poisoning, they are at risk of being sicker than non-pregnant people.  Even worse is that the unborn baby can get sick too.  Unborn babies do not have a developed immune system to fight off infection. 

Deli meats can be contaminated with Listeria

Listeria monocytogenes are bacteria that can be sometimes found in foods you do not normally cook.  It can also survive at fridge temperatures. Non-dried deli meats such as bologna, turkey breast, deli ham or roast beef are common examples of foods that can be contaminated with Listeria.

Safer deli meat options include: dried and salted meats like salami and pepperoni, or non-dried deli meats that are well heated and steaming hot.

Food contaminated by Listeria can cause gastroenteritis, or food poisoning.  Listeria accounts for less than 1% of reported cases of food poisoning. It usually starts within 24 hours of eating contaminated food.  Symptoms of food poisoning caused by Listeria are:

  • Fever
  • Watery diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache
  • Muscle or joint aches

Listeriosis

Listeriosis is a very rare but serious complication of infection caused by Listeria.  Listeriosis can cause meningitis or bacteremia (bacteria in the bloodstream). Listeria bacteria can go through the placenta and infect the unborn baby.  This can cause miscarriage, premature birth or stillbirth, or make your baby very sick when they are born.  Women in their third trimester are at the highest risk of Listeria infection.

Diagnosis of listeriosis is difficult.  The symptoms are very non-specific and can include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Back pain
  • Flu-like illness

If there is any concern regarding listeriosis, I recommend seeing your health care provider urgently.  

Treatment of listeriosis generally involves the pregnant woman receiving intravenous antibiotics in a hospital and careful fetal monitoring.

Prevention is important!

Pregnant women should follow safe food practices:

  • Read expiry dates
  • Avoid cross-contamination between raw foods and cooked foods. 
  • Do not store fresh or cooked meat and poultry products for more than 2 to 3 days in the refrigerator.
  • Wash all raw fruit and vegetables thoroughly. 
  • Make sure hot foods are hot (above 60°C/140°F), cold foods are cold (below 4°C/39°F), and that all meats are well cooked. 
  • Sufficient cooking or reheating of foods will destroy any micro-organisms; cook meats to 70 to 75°C, and reheat to at least 74°C
  • Wash hands prior to food preparation, and wash and disinfect (with household bleach) food preparation surfaces and utensils that have been in contact with raw foods. 
  • Do not wash hands or food with untreated water. 

References:

https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-safety-vulnerable-populations/food-safety-pregnant-women.html(Accessed 15 July 2019)

http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/hp-gs/guide/assets/pdf/hpguide-eng.pdf(Accessed 15 July 2019)

Wadhwa DR, Smith MA. Pregnancy-related listeriosis. Birth Defects Res 2017; 109; 324-335.  

Lamont RF, Sobel J, Mazaki-Tovi S, et al.  Listeriosis in human pregnancy: a systematic review.  J Perinat Med 2011; 39:227-236. 

Ooi St, Lorber B. Gastroenteritis due to Listeria monocytogenes.  Clin Infect Dis 2005; 40(9):1327-32. 

Mascola L, Ewert DP, Eller A.  Listeriosis: a previously unreported medical complication in women with multiple gestations. Am J Obstet Gynecol 1994; 170(5):1328-32. 

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