Not just Listeria Hysteria

Let’s face it, pregnancy often feels like an endless list of restrictions, and nine months is a long time. There’s alcohol and smoking and caffeine; modifying your workout routine; “listening to your body”; and all sorts of old wives tales about not having sex, or eating too much, eating too little, not enough fish, too much fish… .It can drive a pregnant woman crazy!

Then there’s the listeria thing, and if you’re like most women, this would create the most restrictions in your life. It can seem at times that there is NOTHING that you can safely eat. Especially at lunch. Take my friend, newly pregnant, who went to a café, and tried to order a meal.

Waiter: “How about a chicken and avocado roll?”
Friend: “Can’t have cold chicken – sorry” (She could have had it toasted, but only if she was sure that it was heated up to the right temperature”
Waiter: “Smoked salmon then?”
Friend: “No can do, no cold seafood either”
Waiter: “Prosciutto and salad?”
Friend: “I love prosciutto, but no cured meats…”

Argh!! Is it worth it? Are  we too paranoid about listeria and other bugs that can “harm our baby”?

I am a strong believer in making informed decisions. This means knowing exactly what you are dealing with and how it works and how to prevent it and what the risks actually are. It’s all our choice in the end – there are no laws about these things. Bear in mind though that this time it doesn’t just affect you, it affects a wee little human inside of you.

Firstly, I’ve seen Listeria in action and it’s awful. Being a doctor, we see the worst case scenarios, but the point is, this actually happened to someone, and she lost her baby.  I wouldn’t wish Listeriosis on my worst enemy.

So how common is it? The Victorian government’s infectious disease website ( says it’s relatively uncommon. Listeriosis is an uncommon disease in humans. In Australia in 2003 the rate was 4.6 infections per 100 000 births per year for maternal-foetal infections. That year there were 250000 registered births which means there were 11-12 cases of Listeria infections in the whole of Australia. So, not common. However, outbreaks do occur, as happened in August 2009 with the tragic case of the contaminated chicken wraps that were served on Virgin blue flights. 13 people developed listeriosis. Of these, 8 were pregnant women, and there were 3 foetal deaths.

What does one do when the risk is low but the consequences potentially fatal? You need to consider the benefits of taking the risk. In other words, is it worth it?

There are great resources on the web regarding advice on how to avoid listeria and other problematic food-borne infections in pregnancy. The Food Standards website had the most informative brochure (see link below). Instead of just following the blanket rules of “no soft cheese, no pate” etc, I found it helpful to learn a little bit about Listeria and how it grows. It made it a bit easier to make food choices when the rubber hit the road. Here are some pointers from their brochure that I wasn’t aware of before:
•    Store leftovers for up to 24 hours only
•    “Processed” (packaged) food may be safer than unprocessed because of the heat treatment required
•    Deli foods are not safe because there is no guarantee as to how long cold foods have been left standing and refrigerated
•    If it’s steaming hot, it is most probably safe

See the brochure for more information.

Basically, if fruits/vegetables/cold meats have been prepared and left to refrigerate for more than 24 hours there is a risk that Listeria may have multiplied significantly. This includes vegetable garnishes, salads, even “fresh fruit” juices at juice bars (Have you ever noticed how the fruit is cut up and left out in a fruit bar before juicing? It also may have been left in the fridge for much longer before being put on “display”).

For me personally, the benefits of avoiding Listeria as much as I can far outweigh the small pleasures I might gain from having a cold chicken sandwichor the convenience of a pre-prepared salad. I try to focus on what I can have in pregnancy (even though at times this seems like very little…) and eat at home as much as I can. If I’m out I can still enjoy a dining experience – grilled wagyu beef at a Japanese BBQ restaurant was one recent guilt-free gastronomic adventure. I also have a little book in which I have written down all the things I’m going to eat as soon as this baby is born. Some examples are a ham sandwich with mustard, sushi, potato salad, poached eggs with hollandaise sauce… you get the drift. Eventually these nine months will be but a memory and I’ll be able to eat all the sushi I can muster. Bring on the post partum seafood buffet!

Food Standards Australia

New Zealand Food Safety Authority

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