What is Listeria monocytogenes and how does it cause food poisoning?

What is Listeria?

Listeria are a naturally occurring bacteria, that live generally harmlessly in the soil, water and natural environment. However, Listeria do have a species that is dangerous to our health, known as Listeria monocytogenes.

Listeria monocytogenes

Listeria monocytogenes Is a gram-positive, rod shaped bacterium, and are most infamous for surviving and even growing well in refrigeration temperature ranges. This bacterium affects foods such as raw chicken, dairy, processed (deli) meats as well as smoked seafood. This bacteria can also survive in oxygen poor conditions, meaning even vacuum packed foods are not free from concerns.

This Listeria monocytogenes bacterium is known as an opportunistic pathogen, meaning those that are already ill or have a low immune system are mostly likely to suffer from infection.

Listeria monocytogenes is a food-borne illness causing bacteria. The disease is known as Listeriosis. Listeria monocytogenes is often isolated in cattle, sheep, and fowl, and is also found in dairy products, fruits, and vegetables.

What are the Symptoms of Listeria Infection?

A person with Listeriosis usually has fever, muscle aches, and gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea or diarrhoea. If infection spreads to the nervous system, symptoms such as headache, stiff neck, loss of balance, confusion or convulsions can occur. With brain involvement, Listeriosis may mimic a stroke.

Infected pregnant women will ordinarily experience only a mild, flu-like illness; however, infection during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage, infection of the new-born or even stillbirth. Pregnant women are about 20 times more likely than other healthy adults to get Listeriosis;

How to Prevent a Listeria monocytogenes Infection?

General recommendations include:

  • Cook raw food from animal sources completely
  • Keep raw meats separate from vegetables and ready-to-eat foods
  • Avoid unpasteurized (raw) milk or foods made from unpasteurized milk
  • Wash hands, knives, and cutting boards after handling uncooked foods
  • Wash raw vegetables thoroughly before eating
  • And consume perishable and ready-to-eat foods as soon as possible.

Recommendations for persons at high risk, such as pregnant women and persons with weakened immune systems include:

  • Do not eat soft cheeses (such as feta, Brie, Camembert) unless they have labels that clearly state they are made from pasteurised milk.
  • Don’t eat hot dogs or deli meats, unless they are reheated until hot.
  • Wash hands after handling these products.
  • Do not eat meat spreads or smoked seafood from the refrigerated or deli section of the store.

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More details can be found on our latest article on the Listeriosis outbreak in South Africa, currently the largest outbreak in recorded history.



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