Food Borne Illness in Pregnancy

There are two main pathogens that create food borne illness in pregnancy: Listeria and Toxoplasma.

Perhaps it is because I am a grandfather of two or because there is yet one more on the way, but for whatever reason, I am more attuned to the risk of food borne illness in pregnancy than ever before.

Every year, 2,500 Americans become ill with Listeriosis – one out of five cases result in death. Pregnant women and their unborn children have a higher risk of developing Listeriosis. About one-third of Listeriosis cases happen during pregnancy.”

The unborn child is at greater risk. This is such a concern that the FDA has a special bulletin for pregnant women advising which foods to avoid during pregnancy.

They caution to heat or reheat hot dogs, deli meats and luncheon meats before eating them because the bacteria, Listeria grows at refrigerated temperatures 40 ºF or below.

Also risky

  • Any raw or undercooked fish, or shellfish, or food containing raw or undercooked seafood e.g., sashimi, found in some sushi or ceviche.
  • Refrigerated smoked fish.
  • Partially cooked seafood, such as shrimp and crab.
  • Foods that contain raw/undercooked eggs, such as: homemade Caesar salad dressings, homemade raw cookie dough, and homemade eggnog.
  • Soft cheeses made from unpasteurized, hence raw milk, such as:
    • Feta, Brie, Camembert, Blue-veined,
 Queso fresco.

The other infection risk during pregnancy is from the pathogen toxoplasma. Cats play an important role in the spread of toxoplasmosis. While this is not a food borne illness, I would suggest some precautions. Check out the CDC website.

My wife and I are parents of three. During my wife’s pregnancy, even as a physician, I was comparatively ignorant of the above concern. As I have learned more about that risk, I feel a responsibility to tell others, especially those near and dear to my heart. I cannot fathom the anguish of losing a child to these preventable diseases.

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For more information on Listeria: and or Toxoplasma WebMD


Author: Dr. Harlan Stueven, MD

Harlan Stueven M.D. is a Board-Certified Emergency physician with sub-specialization in Environmental Toxicology and Board Certification in Medical Toxicology. Starting his career in the USAF, he served as a Flight Surgeon and Environmental Health Consultant Physician where one of his duties was monitoring food safety. In his nearly 40-year practice, he treated a range of medical, surgical and poisoning emergencies. He has been a Medical Director and/or Chairman of several hospital-based Emergency Medicine Departments, served as the President of Emergency and Environmental Medicine consulting group, a physician group Chief Financial Officer and sat on many national, state and local committees. Dr. Stueven founded Dining Grades and the Dining Safety Alliance to improve food safety by increasing awareness of food borne illness and the formation of partnerships within the food industry. He is a consultant to the Wisconsin Retail Food Establishment Grading Work Group; a Co-investigator in a CDC funded “Evaluation of Health Department Restaurant Inspection Programs” project. He has presented at several National, State and Regional conferences on restaurant grading and food safety. He is an accomplished leader, medical researcher, a champion of process improvement, author, and national and international speaker.

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