Are you at risk from listeria, the deadly bacteria now in the news because of contaminated cantaloupe? The death toll is rising in what is now the largest outbreak of food-borne illness in more than a decade.
The CDC announced Wednesday that 23 people have died from listeriosis, while another 116 have been sickened. Not since 1985, when Listeria from Mexican-style soft cheeses killed 52 people, has a foodborne illness outbreak been this deadly in America. The current death toll also surpassed a 1998 Listeria outbreak linked to processed meats that killed 21 people.
Suddenly the spotlight is on listeria. What is it? Where is it? Who’s at risk? What are the symptoms? What are the best ways to avoid contamination?
What is listeria?
Like the famous mouthwash Listerine, Listeria monocytogenes was named after antiseptic pioneer Joseph Lister. It’s a very common bacterium with an unusual trait: It can grow at refrigerator temperatures. And it can build up in food-processing plants, where it can survive.
Where is listeria found?
Listeria is found in soil, groundwater, animal feed, sewage, and even dust. It primarily lives in soil, where the bacterium eats decaying plants. But once it makes its way into the food supply and is eaten by a human, listeria transforms into a very different bug — one that can live inside human cells.
What foods are often most contaminated with listeria?
Because listeria can grow at refrigerator temperatures and high salt concentrations, cured meats kept in the refrigerator can support listeria growth.
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