Simple steps to avoid life-threatening Listeriosis

Some fruits and vegetables are considered a higher-risk food, says MPI, so make sure they are washed and dried thoroughly. Photo: Supplied.

New Zealand Food Safety wants people to take some practical steps to prevent a rare and life-threatening foodborne illness.

“While rare, every year people die from listeriosis - a disease caused by the bacterium Listeria - and the effects are tragic for their families,” says NZFS deputy director-general Vincent Arbuckle.

“Listeriosis can be prevented and there are simple steps people can take at home to avoid getting sick. So, today we launch a campaign to help some of those most at risk - pregnant and older people - better understand the risks of listeriosis and what to do to decrease them.”

Listeriosis is a result of eating or drinking food that has high levels of Listeria, which is widespread in the environment.

Listeriosis is rare in New Zealand and cases are usually not connected, whereas cases in other countries are predominantly due to outbreaks.

In New Zealand, there were four deaths from listeriosis in 2021 and six in 2022, with 78 people hospitalised over those two years.

“Infections in healthy adults are unlikely to be severe, but listeriosis during pregnancy can cause miscarriage, premature labour, stillbirth, or disease in the newborn baby,” says Vincent.

“As you age - and particularly over 65 - your immune system gets weaker. This means foods you safely ate in the past may no longer be safe for you to eat.

"Some people may not be aware of this. So, we’re using our campaign to highlight higher-risk foods while sharing some food-safety advice on how to make them safe to eat.”

Higher-risk foods include:

  • ready-to-eat meat products, like deli meats and pâtés
  • smoked seafood (especially cold smoked fish)
  • soft cheeses (like brie and camembert)
  • uncooked paneer cheese
  • unpasteurised dairy products (like raw milk and cheese)
  • soft serve ice-cream
  • some fruit (like melons)
  • leafy greens and bagged salad (like mesclun and spinach)
  • uncooked sprouts (like alfalfa and mung beans) and enoki mushrooms
  • uncooked frozen vegetables
  • some refrigerated foods with a long shelf life
  • ready-to-eat cooked meals.

To lower the risk of getting listeriosis, you can:

  • choose safer foods
  • cook food thoroughly
  • only eat fruit and vegetables that have been washed and dried thoroughly
  • only eat food that was recently prepared
  • refrigerate leftovers quickly
  • preheat food to steaming hot (more than 70°C) before eating
  • avoid eating leftovers that won’t be reheated
  • wash and dry your hands thoroughly and follow good food hygiene practices.

“Friday is World Food Safety Day, and this year’s theme is ‘prepare for the unexpected’,” says Vincent.

“NZFS requires food businesses to prevent Listeria in the processing environment and have measures in place to manage its presence.

“If something goes wrong, we support businesses with their consumer-level food recalls. Last year there were three consumer recalls due to the possible presence of Listeria.

“But there’s also something you can do to be prepared for the unexpected. If you make or buy food for vulnerable people, or are perhaps vulnerable yourself, sign up to our food recall alerts.

“And look out for our campaign so you can share it with people who may not know the life-threatening risks of listeriosis.”

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