The bacteria Listeria can cause serious illness, leading to hospitalization and even death. Unlike most food borne bacteria, Listeria can grow and spread in the refrigerator, contaminating other foods and increasing the likelihood that you and your family will be infected with this food borne illness.
The illness caused by Listeria monocytogenes is known as listeriosis. At the highest risk for listeriosis are pregnant women, older adults, and people who have certain chronic medical conditions or have a compromised immune system, such as people who have cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, HIV/AIDS, or transplant patients. When a pregnant woman gets listeriosis, she is at risk for miscarriage, stillbirth, and serious health issues or the death of her newborn.
A recent multi-state outbreak of listeriosis linked to contaminated cantaloupes caused a number of deaths. Listeria has also been linked to a number of ready-to-eat foods, such as unpasteurized dairy products, soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk, hot dogs, processed deli meats, deli salads, and smoked seafood. According to Donald Zink, Ph.D., senior science advisor at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the FDA is aware of cases of listeriosis caused by bacteria that can live in the kitchen and spread to foods.
To protect yourself and your family from listeriosis and other food borne illnesses, wash all fruits and vegetables just before eating, even if you plan on peeling the produce first. Also scrub firm produce like melons and cucumbers with a clean produce brush, which you can find at your supermarket.
To further protect your family from listeria, you can follow these easy steps:
Maintain Proper Refrigerator Temperature to Keep Foods Cold
An important way you can reduce Listeria in your home is to chill food properly. While Listeria can grow at colder temperatures, it grows more slowly at temperatures of 40 degrees F or less. Some tips to keep your foods at the proper temperature:
- Keep your fridge at 40 degrees F or lower. Keep your freezer at 0 degrees F or lower.
- Cover foods and make sure they don’t leak onto other foods. Use plastic wrap, foil, plastic bags, or clean covered containers before placing foods in the fridge.
- Use an appliance/refrigerator thermometer to ensure proper temperatures. Adjust temperature controls as needed and check temperatures in the refrigerator and freezer periodically.
- Use ready-to-eat and precooked foods as soon as possible. The longer items are stored, the more chance Listeria has to grow. If you have had leftovers in your refrigerator for more than three days, you should dispose of them. When it comes to Listeria, it is better to be safe than sorry.
Clean Your Refrigerator Regularly
Listeria can quickly contaminate other foods in your refrigerator, so be sure to keep your fridge clean.
- Clean up all spills right away. It’s best to use paper towels to prevent germs from transferring to a cloth towel.
- Use warm water and liquid soap to clean the inside walls and shelves of your fridge regularly. You can also sanitize your refrigerator monthly using the tips below.
Keep Hands and Kitchen Surfaces Clean
It is easy for Listeria to spread from one surface to another.
- Keep all food preparation surfaces clean by thoroughly washing with warm, soapy water. You can also take extra precaution by sanitizing clean surfaces by using any of the kitchen surface cleaners available at your local supermarket. Be sure to follow product directions for the best results.
- You can make your own sanitizer by combining 1 tsp. of unscented bleach with 1 qt. of water. Flood the surface and let it sit for 10 minutes. Rinse with clean water and air dry or pat dry with clean paper towels.
- Wash cutting boards with warm, soapy water after each use. Some cutting boards can be washed in the dishwasher
- Wash dish cloths, towels, and cloth grocery bags regularly in the hot cycle of your washing machine.
- Wash hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food.