What’s all the hype about listeria and should you be concerned about it?

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What is listeria?

Listeria is a hardy bacterium that’s resistant to extreme temperatures and commonly found in soil, water and some animals, such as poultry and cattle. Listeria is a pathogenic -- meaning it’s infectious to humans, and though it’s rare, it’s still the third-ranking cause of death from food poisoning in the United States, killing approximately 256 people each year, according to CNN.

What are some of the symptoms and dangers of listeria?

The early symptoms are similar to the flu, and although some people may suffer only short-term symptoms such as high fever, severe headache, nausea, abdominal pain, and diarrhea, listeria can also cause miscarriages and stillbirths. The length of time between infection and the appearance of symptoms is unknown.

Where does it come from?

Listeria is found in soil, water, and the intestines of some animals. But most animals that have it show no symptoms, so the bacterium can get transferred to raw foods such as unpasteurized dairy products, raw vegetables, and raw meats.

Unlike other types of bacteria, listeria can grow in the low temperatures of a refrigerator. And when listeria gets into a factory environment, it can live for several years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says. Studies suggest that up to 10 percent of humans may be carriers.

Who’s most at risk?

Listeria primarily affects the elderly, pregnant women, newborns, and people with weakened immune systems. In the U.S., an estimated 1,600 people become seriously ill each year, and about 16 percent of those cases result in death. Cervical infections caused by listeria in pregnant women may result in spontaneous abortion during the second or third trimesters or stillbirth. 

How can you protect yourself?

Recommendations for keeping food safe from listeria are similar to those used to protect against other food-borne illnesses. Remember to cook meat to the USDA's recommended temperatures and to wash all raw vegetables and fruit.

Keep your fridge below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and eat leftovers within three to four days, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends.

What are these companies doing about it?

Blue Bell Creameries voluntarily recalled all of its products made at all of its facilities, the company said in an April 20 statement. The products, which include ice cream, frozen yogurt, sherbet, and other frozen foods, are potentially contaminated with listeria.

Sabra Dipping Co. is recalling 30,000 cases of hummus due to possible contamination with listeria, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Amy’s Kitchen organic food company recalled nearly 74,000 cases of its products due to possible contamination by listeria.

For more information about listeria and the recent recalls, visit the FDA’s website.