Hysteria: Wash food to avoid scary listeria

Cantaloupe for birthdays is so much better than a birthday cake. Trust me! It’s mouth-watering, crisp, sweet, vitamin-filled, and doesn’t add an extra inch to your waistline. I think a goal after the age of 40 is to make sure your waistline measurement doesn’t exceed your age.

A good friend recently sent me a fruit arrangement for my 45th birthday. It was very cute with pineapples, chocolate-covered strawberries, grapes, honeydew, and of course cantaloupe on a faux cake. Naturally, I ate all the cantaloupe like a hungry dinosaur. One of my patients in the hallway saw me do this and said, “Do you know there's a Listeria outbreak in cantaloupe?”

“Happy Birthday dear dead me…”

How did Listeria get on cantaloupe?

As of September 24, 2011, eight deaths have been linked to Rocky Ford cantaloupes contaminated with the bacterium Listeria (rhymes with hysteria). Listeria on these not-so-appealing-at-the-moment melons have been found in 14 states, although they were shipped to at least 25 states including Virginia.

Listeria accounts for less than one percent of bacterial food-borne illnesses. However, because the mortality rate of Listeria is 16 percent, it's the number-two killer among US food-borne infections.

Cantaloupe doesn’t kill– just to set the record straight. What makes this outbreak of Listeria so unusual is that it usually doesn’t affect produce. Listeria outbreaks usually occur in unpasteurized cheese, deli meats, and smoked refrigerated seafood. Just like E. coli and Salmonella, it appears that Listeria is branching out. Perhaps Listeria is just another extension of our growing food contamination problem.

Listeria lives in soil and decaying vegetable matter. So it’s found in dust, animal feed, water, sewage, many animals, and of course food for us humans! One to five percent of healthy people actually have Listeria in their stools. Listeria usually affects folks who are immunocompromised (AIDS, cancer, organ transplant patients, diabetics), over the age of 60, newborns, pregnant women, and people on steroids. However, healthy individuals can become quite sick from it.

Symptoms usually start one day after Listeria is ingested. They are typical of food poisoning: nausea, vomiting, and watery diarrhea. Flu-like symptoms include fever, muscle aches, and joint pains.

Pregnant women in their third trimester can have back pain with fever and chills. Listeria can cause premature birth, miscarriage, fetal death, or death of a baby soon after birth.

Listeria can infect the lining around the spinal cord and/or the brain to cause a stiff neck, mental status changes (lethargy, confusion), tremor, poor coordination (not being able to tie your shoelaces or walk a straight line), and even deafness.

Diagnosis is made clinically and through cultures of the blood or the CSF (cerebral spinal fluid obtained from a spinal tap). Treatment is with antibiotics.

But of course the best medicine is prevention. Deli meats are supposed to have gone through post-packaging pasteurization. I know obstetricians who recommend that pregnant women not eat luncheon meats like turkey. Hot dogs should be served hot: a microwave might not cook the whole thing, so be careful. Raw meat, fish, and poultry should be separated from foods that will be cooked, and cutting boards and knives should be washed after handling these possibly contaminated foods.

Listeria can live in soft cheeses which might not have been made from pasteurized milk: brie, feta, camembert, blue-veined cheese, and Mexican-styled cheese. Smoked fish such as lox can also harbor Listeria.

Well, Happy Birthday, me! (I’m fine– really!) But what next? Botulism birthday cakes?
Hook cracks a joke or two, but he’s a respected physician with an interesting website, drjohnhong.com. Email him with your questions!