Are Listeria Outbreaks in Cheese Serious?

Everything You Need to Know to Prevent, Identify, and Respond to Listeria in Cheese!

health care articles for Americans

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Listeria outbreaks in cheese can be a serious concern due to the potential health risks associated with the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes. This pathogen can cause listeriosis, a foodborne illness that can be particularly dangerous for pregnant women, newborns, the elderly, and individuals with weakened immune systems.

Cheese, especially soft cheeses like brie, camembert, and blue-veined varieties, can provide an ideal environment for Listeria growth if not properly handled and stored.  As of recently there has been an outbreak of Listeria found in Queso Fresco and Cotija cheese.

To prevent a Listeria outbreak in cheese, it’s crucial for cheese manufacturers to maintain strict hygiene practices throughout the production process. This includes ensuring proper sanitation of equipment, facilities, and storage areas, as well as monitoring temperature controls to inhibit bacterial growth.

Consumers can also play a role by storing cheese at the correct temperature, following expiration dates, and practicing good food safety habits when handling and serving cheese products.

By staying vigilant and informed about the risks associated with Listeria contamination, both producers and consumers can work together to minimize the chances of an outbreak.  Recognizing the symptoms of listeriosis early is crucial for prompt medical treatment and recovery.

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Understanding the Symptoms of Listeriosis

The symptoms of listeriosis can vary from mild to severe and usually start one to four weeks after consuming contaminated food, but they can appear as early as the same day or as late as 70 days after exposure.

In healthy individuals, short-term symptoms may include:

  • fever
  • muscle aches
  • nausea
  • diarrhea

However, if the infection spreads to the nervous system, symptoms can escalate to:

  • headache
  • stiff neck
  • confusion
  • loss of balance
  • convulsions.

Pregnant women need to be particularly cautious as they are about ten times more likely to get listeriosis than other healthy adults due to their weakened immune systems. While they may experience only mild flu-like symptoms, the infection can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, or life-threatening infection of the newborn.

Given these risks, it’s important for anyone who suspects they may have consumed Listeria-contaminated cheese to monitor their health closely and seek medical advice promptly if they develop symptoms, especially if they are in a higher-risk category.

So, how do you identify Listeria monocytogenes?

Listeria monocytogenes (the bacterium responsible for listeriosis) is not detectable through sight, smell, or taste in cheese or other foods.  It can be detected with lab testing; noted in body tissue, blood, placenta or spinal fluid.

Knowing if your cheese is contaminated with Listeria requires attention to several key factors:

  • Awareness of recalls and safety warnings issued by food safety authorities and manufacturers
  • Check food safety websites, news outlets, and subscribe to alerts from health and food safety organizations for up-to-date information.

When a product is found to be contaminated with Listeria, it is usually recalled from the market. Staying informed about these recalls can help you avoid consuming potentially contaminated products.

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Types of cheese are more susceptible to Listeria contamination:

It’s best to be cautious with all cheese, however some are more susceptible to Listeria than others. These are the cheeses to keep a close watch on:

  • Soft cheeses
  • Unpasteurized (raw) milk cheeses
  • Cheese with a higher moisture content are generally more at risk

These include varieties like:

  • Brie
  • Camembert
  • Feta
  • Blue-veined cheeses

It’s important to note that any cheese can potentially become contaminated with Listeria if not properly produced, handled, or stored.

Do your part to prevent Listeria

Proper storage and handling of cheese at home can reduce the risk of Listeria contamination.

  • Keep your refrigerator at 40°F (4°C) or lower
  • Store cheese in clean, airtight containers
  • Follow the “use-by” dates on packaging
  • If you suspect a cheese might be contaminated or if it was part of a recall, dispose of it

In cases of known contamination or outbreak, testing of the product by health authorities or the manufacturers is the only definitive way to identify Listeria in cheese. For consumers, prevention and caution based on the latest information and safe food practices are the best measures against consuming Listeria-contaminated products.

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