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What is listeria, how does it effect lunch meat, and should I be eating it?
Q: I am just entering my second trimester of pregnancy with my second child. My 2½-year-old and I truly enjoy eating luncheon meat sandwiches. What exactly is listeria, how does it effect luncheon meat, and should I be eating it?
Roslyn Newark
A: —Listeria are bacteria that may be carried by animals which seem healthy, and can cause an infection in humans called listeriosis. The bacteria are very resistant to food preservatives (such as heat, salt, nitrite and acidity), and continue to grow in refrigerated foods. The foods most likely to be infected are unpasteurized milk products, improperly cooked meats, cooked chilled foods (like luncheon meats or hot dogs), and soft cheeses. Contamination in processed meats may not affect the look, smell or taste of the food and can occur after the food is processed. Healthy people rarely contract listeriosis, however pregnant women are more susceptible to infection—both miscarriage and stillbirths have been linked to listeriosis. Meningitis (infection of the brain) and septicemia (blood infection) can occur in infants born to women with listeriosis.

The best way to avoid the infection is to avoid soft cheeses in pregnancy, use only pasteurized dairy products, eat only thoroughly cooked meat, poultry, or seafood, and thoroughly reheat all meats purchased at deli counters before eating them. Wash all fruits and vegetables with water, and always take care to wash any food preparation counters and utensils with warm, soapy water.