Foodborne illness is a serious health risk for pregnant women and their unborn babies. During pregnancy, a woman’s immune system is weakened and it is harder for her body to fight off harmful foodborne microorganisms. In addition, the baby’s immune system is not developed enough to fight off the harmful microorganisms either.
In general, since some types of food poisoning pose a greater risk to pregnant women and their babies, women who are expecting should take a few precautionary steps when selecting and preparing food.
In upcoming issues, Food Safety News will feature stories with information on how pregnant women can prevent becoming ill from a foodborne illness, including tips, guidelines, and new findings related to food
The major foodborne illnesses that are particularly dangerous to pregnant women are listeriosis, toxoplasmosis and salmonellosis.
Listeriosis is caused by Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium found in soil and water. It can be found on vegetables, meats, and dairy products, as well as in processed foods such as soft cheeses and in cold cuts. Although the bacteria are of little danger to healthy people, in pregnant women the infection can result in premature delivery, serious infection of the newborn, or even stillbirth.
To prevent listeriosis adhere to the following guidelines:
• Do not eat hot dogs, luncheon meats, or deli meats, unless they are reheated until steaming hot.
• Do not eat soft cheeses such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined cheeses, and Mexican-style cheeses such as “queso blanco fresco.” Hard cheeses and semisoft cheeses such as mozzarella, along with pasteurized processed cheese slices and spreads, cream cheese, and cottage cheese, are safe to eat.
• Do not eat refrigerated pâté or meat spreads. These items are safe if they are canned.
• Do not eat refrigerated smoked seafood unless it is an ingredient in a cooked dish such as a casserole. Examples of refrigerated smoked seafood include salmon, trout, whitefish, cod, tuna, and mackerel. You may eat canned fish such as salmon and tuna or shelf-stable smoked seafood.
• Do not drink raw (unpasteurized) milk or eat foods that contain unpasteurized milk.
• Avoid eating salads made in a store, such as ham, chicken, egg, tuna, or seafood salads.
Toxoplasmosis is caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. A pregnant woman can give toxoplasmosis to her fetus. Fetal toxoplasmosis can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and birth defects. The parasite is acquired by swallowing Toxoplasma gondii eggs from soil or other contaminated surfaces. This can happen by putting your hands to your mouth after gardening, cleaning a cat’s litter box, or touching anything that has come into contact with cat feces.
To prevent toxoplasmosis, adhere to the following guidelines:
• Wash all foods that could have had contact with cat feces, including commercial fruits and vegetables.
• Eat only well-cooked or previously frozen meat, and avoid dried meats. Cook meat to high a enough temperature, or subject it to a low temperature, to kill Toxoplasma gondii.
• Carefully wash your hands and all utensils after preparing raw meat, poultry, seafood, fruits, or vegetables.
• Avoid untreated drinking water. This is a concern when you are in the wilderness or are traveling to developing countries where drinking water is not treated.
• Avoid cat feces, in both the home and the garden. If you have a cat and you are either pregnant or planning to become pregnant soon, have someone else clean the cat litter box. If you must clean the box yourself, do it daily. Wear gloves and a face mask, and wash your hands afterward.
• Make a habit of washing any table or counter surfaces that a cat may have walked across.
• Consider keeping your cat indoors. A cat who goes outdoors is likely to become infected with Toxoplasma gondii by eating infected birds or rodents. (Eating indoor mice also poses a risk.)
Salmonellosis is a common form of food infection that may result when foods containing Salmonella bacteria are eaten. The bacteria are spread through direct or indirect contact with the intestinal contents or waste of animals, including humans. Salmonella bacteria do not grow at refrigerator or freezer temperatures and are easily destroyed by heating foods to 165 degrees F.
To prevent salmonellosis, adhere to the following guidelines:
• Follow general safe food handling practices, including washing hands often with hot, soapy
water, especially after using the bathroom and before and after handling food.
• Hands and working surfaces should be thoroughly washed after contact with raw meat, fish, poultry, and foods that will not undergo further cooking.
• Fresh fruits and vegetables should be rinsed well before eating
• Food such as raw milk and raw milk products, raw or undercooked eggs, raw sprouts, raw or undercooked meat and poultry, and unpasteurized fruit juices should be avoided.