What is Listeria? And Why is it Ruining Queso Fresco for Hispanics?

Listeria, is one of the deadliest forms of food poisoning- and Hispanics are at a particularly high risk.

Listeria is the name of a bacteria found in soil and water and some animals, including poultry and cattle. It can be present in raw milk and foods made from raw milk such as Queso Fresco, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It can also live in food processing plants and contaminate a variety of processed meats

Why is Listera such a deadly bacteria?

Listeria may not be the most common type of food borne illness, but it is definitely one of the most serious, killing one out of every five people that it infects, according to the CDC.

Listeria is unlike many other germs because it grows in cold temperatures found in refrigerators. Listeria is also particularly dangerous because symptoms are subtle and therefore prove to be difficult to identify. For example, Listeria rarely causes gastrointestinal problems, and it takes a week or two for symptoms to manifest. 

What foods are most susceptible to Listeria?

You can get listeriosis by eating foods contaminated with Listeria bacterium. The highest-risk foods are deli meats, hot dogs, smoked seafood, various soft cheeses, meat spreads/pates, and sometimes fresh fruits and vegetables that have been infected by soil or fertilizer, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

In recent years, there have been Listeria outbreaks involving cantaloupe, cheese, bean sprouts, and even ice cream- when Blue Bell Ice Cream products were  linked to the death of three people in Kansas in the spring of 2015.

Furthermore, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, an award-winning artisanal ice cream company,  had to toss out more than 535,000 pounds of its dairy delight last year after its products tested positive for listeria.

Why Queso Fresco is particularly susceptible to Listeria

Queso fresco is sometimes homemade and often uses unpasteurized or raw milk, two factors that make it especially susceptible to Listeria contamination, according to the CDC.  

What are symptoms of a Listeria Infection?

Fever and muscle aches, sometimes preceded by diarrhea or other gastrointestinal symptoms are telltale symptoms of Listeria.

Almost everyone who is diagnosed with listeriosis has what is called an “invasive” infection, in which the bacteria spreads beyond the usual gastrointestinal tract. It’s important to note symptoms vary with the infected person, per the CDC.

Who is at an increased risk for Listeria?

  • Hispanics: Hispanics are at an increased risk due to the prevalence of “queso fresco” or soft cheeses in their diets and its use in many traditional hispanic foods.
  • Pregnant women: Expectant mothers are approximately 20 times more likely than other healthy adults to get listeriosis and make up ⅓ of all reported cases, according to the FDA. Dr. Mosquera warns, “In pregnant women it can cause miscarriage, premature labor, stillbirth and even meningitis. Pregnant women should take extreme caution and eliminate foods most likely to carry listeria, especially queso fresco and any foods made from or with unpasteurized milk.”
  • Older adults: Natural changes in their organs and body systems are expected as they grow older. These changes often make them more susceptible to contracting a foodborne illness such as Listeriosis.
  • People with compromised immune systems: this includes people that have weakened immune systems due to diseases such as HIV, Diabetes, and Alcoholism.
  • Organ transplant patients: Patients who are receiving drugs to prevent the body from rejecting the organ also have weakened immune systems due to the medication.

What do you do if you develop a Listeria infection?

The CDC notes Listeriosis is usually treated with an antibiotic for people in a higher-risk category noted above.

4 Tips on how to prevent Listeria

To keep yourself safe and prevent Listeria, Consumer Reports  as well as Doctor Mosquera recommends the following:

  1. Keeping your fridge at 37 F: Also keep your  freezer no higher than 0° F. Use a thermometer in the refrigerator to check those temperatures regularly. Even small increases in temperature cause any listeria bacteria present to multiply much more quickly, according to Ben Chapman, associate professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University.
  2. Limiting storage time for refrigerated food: This is particularly the case for unsealed ready-to-eat foods like deli-salads and cut produce. Eat deli-sliced meats, or packaged-luncheon meats that have been opened, before 5 days pass. Hot dogs, once unsealed,, should be consumed within a week.
  3. Storing leftovers no longer than three or four days: Try and choose re-usable containers that are shallow to promote rapid, even cooling. Reheat to 165 degrees and remember to try and bring soups or sauces to a boil before eating.
  4. Washing your hands before and after handling food

How you can keep a tab on Listeria recalls

Although the odds of getting listeriosis are not very high, the health risks it poses are so serious that it’s worth keeping tabs on the latest Listeria-related recalls on the Food and Drug Administration’s website.

You can also sign up on the site to get safety alerts when recalls are announced—an especially good idea for anyone in high-risk groups. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced nearly two dozen recalls due to possible listeria contamination since 2012, so it’s worth keeping an eye on.

To get even more detailed information from Consumer Reports on how to keep your home food-poisoning safe, click here