Listeria is back in the headlines as grocery chains have recalled shipments of fruit distributed by a produce-packing company in Cutler, California.
Wawona Packing Co. sparked fears over the weekend when it issued a nationwide voluntary recall of certain shipments of nectarines, peaches, plums and pluots packed between June 1 and July 12 because they were potentially contaminated by the deadly food-borne illness. In the wake of the announcement, stores including Trader Joe's Company, Wegman's Food Markets, Inc. and CostCo Wholesale Corporation (NASDAQ:COST) have pulled fruit purchased from the retailer and products containing it off their shelves.
But it also raised many questions for consumers who are not familiar with Listeria and its symptoms.
Listeria is a term that refers to a number of different bacteria, of which Listeria minocytogenes is the type that infects humans who contract it by consuming contaminated food. The pathogen causes an illness known as listeriosis, which has a range of symptoms ranging from minor nuisances to death.
Although it infects just 1,600 Americans a year on average, Listeria has a mortality rate of 24 percent and kills about 260 people across the nation annually, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, estimates.
Keeping these statistics in mind, consumers -- especially ones who are at heightened risk of contracting Listeria -- should educate themselves about the illness, though CBS News reported that, as of Tuesday, there had been no reported cases of people falling ill as a result of eating recalled Wawona fruit.
First, it is important to understand who is most likely to be affected by Listeria and experience its worst symptoms. Although other people occasionally contract it, Listeria “is found mainly among pregnant women, their fetuses, and immunocompromised persons,” according to the National Institutes of Health.
The symptoms of the disease can begin anywhere from several days after eating contaminated food to two months later, according to the Mayo Clinic. At first, victims might experience fever, muscle aches, nausea and/or diarrhea. If it spreads to the nervous system, it can also cause headaches, stiff neck, confusion, change in alertness, loss of balance and/or convulsions.
For many people, the illness will typically pass in time without further incident. But, pregnant women face bigger complications, which could lead to the death of the fetus.
“During pregnancy, a listeria infection is likely to cause only mild signs and symptoms in the mother. The consequences for the baby, however, may be devastating,” the Mayo Clinic warns. “The baby may die unexpectedly before birth or experience a life-threatening infection within the first few days after birth.”
And people with compromised immune systems, the elderly and very young people are at higher risk of contracting the disease. Therefore, people in these more vulnerable populations are advised to avoid the foods that are most likely to be contaminated with Listeria, and to prepare food properly.
The CDC has compiled a helpful list of foods to stay away from in order to avoid contracting Listeria. The list ranges from raw milk and soft cheeses like Brie and Camembert to meat, seafood and, yes, fruits (especially melons.)
The agency has gone a step farther, putting together a comprehensive guide to food preparation techniques to help people avoid falling ill with Listeria. The guide outlines how to properly clean fruit, cook meat and store seafood, among many other tips.
As the Wawona recall remains a concern, however, it may be best to just do without nectarines, peaches, plums and pluots for the time being, just to be safe.