How not to get listeria — the food poisoning that means business

May 9, 2016 at 5:21 p.m. ET
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As the list of foods being recalled due to possible listeria contamination continues to grow at an alarming rate, many people are left with one major question: What the heck is listeria?

Another day, another food recall — or in this case, over 350 recalls. And this time it's due to possible listeria contamination at a large frozen-food plant. But how worried, exactly, should we be? And why is the FDA making such a big deal about some old frozen fruits and veggies? The answers are "very" and "because death."

More: Huge frozen food recall reveals what's so dangerous about listeria

Listeria, a food borne illness caused by the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes, is a deadly disease. While still relatively rare (there are less than 2,000 cases reported each year in the U.S.), it kills about 18 percent or nearly one in five people who contract the bug — far higher that E. coli and salmonella, the most well-known bacterial food poisonings. Even worse, it's most likely to hit people with already weakened immune systems, like pregnant women, small children and the elderly, making it even less likely they'll survive.

Of the 80 percent of people who get it but don't die, they don't exactly get off easy. The disease usually starts off with a fever, muscle aches and diarrhea, according to the CDC, before progressing to headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance and convulsions. Pregnant women with listeriosis may lose the baby, go into preterm labor or have a baby with severe birth defects or illness.

More: How to tell if your upset stomach is food poisoning or the flu

Listeria is also so scary because of the wide variety of foods it can be found in. The most common culprits include ready-to-eat deli meats and hot dogs, refrigerated pâtés or meat spreads, unpasteurized (raw) milk and dairy products, soft cheese made with unpasteurized milk (such as queso fresco, feta, brie, Camembert), refrigerated smoked seafood and raw sprouts. (Women who have ever been pregnant will likely recognize that list as the one their doctors give them at their first appointment of what they need to avoid for the next nine months — and now you know why.)

But it's not just the refrigerator aisle you need to be wary in, as the most recent outbreaks of listeria have all involved produce. The current recall affects frozen fruits and veggies, but other recent outbreaks have occurred in cantaloupe, bagged salad, ice cream and even caramel apples. Part of what makes listeria so deadly is its ability to thrive in cold environments, like your fridge and freezer, where other bacteria would be limited. It can be killed by cooking at high temperatures.

More: The truth about raw sprouts and how dangerous they are for you to eat

To protect yourself and your family, the CDC recommends cooking deli meats and hot dogs to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit (or until steaming hot) and avoiding all raw milk products, uncooked meats and sprouts — especially if you're in one of the high-risk groups. Lastly, make sure you stay updated on the recall list and go through your food and throw out anything that could be contaminated.

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