Ready-to-Eat Foods and Listeriosis

We have likely all had (or know someone who has had) that awful experience: you have a great meal during the day and wake up in the middle of the night running for the bathroom. Food “poisoning” is typically the term we use when we have consumed a food that causes us to be sick, but it is worth a little clarification.

Food poisoning (or food intoxication) occurs when we consume a toxic compound produced by bacteria.  The result is often a combination of diarrhea and vomiting as your body tries to flush the toxin out. It typically is short-lived (often only lasting 24 hours) and not contagious. Food infection is where we actually ingest the bacteria and contract an infection as your body tries to fight it off. Symptoms may take longer to appear, can last quite a long time, and can be passed from person to person. Food infection is quite serious and can even be fatal for some populations.

What’s baffling is with all the technology today, we still seem to be struggling to produce safe food! The technology we use in the food industry may be part of the reason we have as many food recalls as we do. Listeriosis is a major infection that can be contracted from the ingestion of Listeria monocytogenes. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in the United States, 1,600 people per year get sick with listeriosis, and out of that, 260 die. For healthy individuals, listeriosis just might look like fever and diarrhea. However, for pregnant women (as pregnant women are immune-compromised) it can result in severe infections, abortions, or stillbirths. Elderly individuals, infants and children under the age of 5, and pregnant women are the most at risk.

Our food choices can have a big impact on our overall health when it comes to contamination of food. The more we know and the more we take precautionary methods, the better we can prevent food infections from occurring. The greatest food culprits are often ready-to-eat (RTE) foods, especially in the meat category (think sliced meats, pre-packaged chicken strips, salamis, etc.). As recently as March 2nd, 2018 (just a few weeks ago) the Canadian Food Inspection Agency issued a recall for certain brands of salami, chorizo, and pepperoni due to a risk of listeria contamination. RTE vegetables are also starting to pop up on food recalls, with the contamination of listeria becoming more prevalent. This can include everything from canned corn, veggie trays and pre-bagged salad mixes to even whole canteloupes and caramel apples.

Listeria can be killed by pasteurization and cooking, but foods can be easily contaminated after processing occurs. Contamination from outside sources is usually how listeria gets onto our food. These little bacteria are very adept at surviving through a lot of situations, making it very dangerous for consumers. In the food industry, methods like UV radiation, antimicrobial agents, air components of packaging, sanitation and hygiene components, and temperature control are all methods that that limit the growth of listeria. However, when it comes down to your food prep at home, good-old washing is one of the most effective methods (especially for fruits).


By Raina Beugelink – Registered Dietitian

April 27, 2018