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When Food Bites Back: Protecting Those at Risk for Listeria Food Poisoning

When Food Bites Back: Protecting Those at Risk for Listeria Food Poisoning

Foodborne illness—sometimes called food poisoning—affects everyone, although it targets some people more than others. A new Vital Signs report on foodborne illness looks at one of the most deadly germs spread by contaminated food—Listeria—and the people it strikes the hardest.

Our Vital Signs report points once again to a stubborn problem: that food can sometimes bite back. We would be wise to heed its reminder—that more progress is needed to protect people and drive down foodborne illnesses in the U.S.

“I knew nothing about Listeria”

Paul F. Schwarz,
A food safety advocate after his father, Paul A. Schwartz, died from Listeria infection
(Story below)

Rare but Deadly

Although Listeria itself is common in the environment, it rarely causes infections in people (called listeriosis). About 1,600 people in the United States get sick from Listeria each year. While the infection is rare, in 2011, a new source—cantaloupes contaminated with Listeria—caused one of the deadliest foodborne outbreaks in the US.

Who May Be at Risk…and Why?

Listeria, the third leading cause of death from food poisoning, targets pregnant women and their babies, people with weakened immune systems, and those 65 years or older. These hard-hit groups account for at least 90 percent of reported Listeria infections.

Pregnant women, fetuses, and newborn infants

Listeria can pass from a pregnant woman to her fetus or newborn. It can cause miscarriage and stillbirth; in a newborn, it can cause bloodstream infection, meningitis, or death. The risk for pregnant women is ten times higher than for the general population. For Hispanic pregnant women, the risk is 24 times higher. More consumption of Mexican-style soft cheese, like queso fresco, may explain the higher rates among Hispanics.

Stephanie with her infant son Michael

Stephanie with her infant son, Michael. Photo Credit: STOP organization

Stephanie and Michael's story:

Stephanie strived to take care of herself and her unborn baby. As an ultrasound technologist working with high-risk pregnancies, Stephanie knew more than most what could go wrong during a pregnancy. She knew the risks of Listeria after seeing its damaging effects firsthand while working at the hospital.

Unfortunately, Stephanie developed listeriosis, an infection caused by eating Listeria-tainted food. Her beautiful son, Michael, delivered brain dead and unable to breathe on his own, died two days later--another casualty of Listeria food poisoning. (Read Stephanie's entire story.)

People with weakened immune systems

Listeria can spread through the bloodstream to cause meningitis and often kills. A weakend immune system increases the risk of Listeria infection. Many illnesses can weaken the immune system, including different kinds of cancer, HIV/AIDS, kidney and liver disease. In addition, many medicines can weaken the immune system, including steroids, cancer chemotherapy, and drugs to treat rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases. Listeria infection occurs more often in this group than in people with strong immune systems.

Michael Hauer

Michael Hauser

Michael's story:

Michael Hauser was recovering from cancer treatment and was busy making vacation plans and scouting hunting areas when he fell ill with listeriosis after eating cantaloupe in August 2011. While hospitalized, Michael developed Listeria meningitis. He suffered several seizures and was in a coma for 8 weeks.

Michael underwent several surgeries, spent a month in a long term acute care facility and two months at a neurological rehab hospital. After five months in hospital, he finally came home on February 7, 2012 as a quadriplegic. Michael died 3 weeks later, on his birthday February 21, 2012. (Read Michael's entire story.)

Adults 65 years or older

Listeria can spread through the bloodstream to cause meningitis and often kills. The risk for those 65 years or older is four times higher than for the general population.

Paul's story

Paul A Schwarz, 92-year-old World War II veteran who had received 2 Purple Hearts, was active and in good health when he fell ill with a Listeria infection after eating cantaloupe in September of 2011.

Paul A Schwarz

Paul A. Schwartz
Photo Credit: Pew Health


Paul passed away on December 18, 2011, leaving behind his wife Rosellen of 68 years, five children, nine grandchildren, and ten great grandchildren. (Listen to Paul's entire story)

Protecting Those at Risk

We have made some progress against Listeria. However, we can do more to protect people at higher risk for food poisoning and make food safer for everyone. The Vital Signs report lists actions that we can take to combat this problem.

What Can You Do?

People at higher risk and those who cook for them can

  • Know which foods are risky and not eat these foods.
  • Not drink raw (unpasteurized) milk or eat soft cheeses made from it.
    • Be aware that Mexican-style cheeses made from pasteurized milk, such as queso fresco, likely contaminated during cheese-making, have caused Listeria infections.
  • Heat deli meats and hot dogs until steaming hot before eating.
  • Refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours in shallow covered containers and use within 3-4 days.
  • Be careful to avoid cross-contamination in the refrigerator or other places in the kitchen.
  • Use a thermometer to make sure your refrigerator is 40°F or lower and your freezer is 0°F or lower.

For more information on Listeria, visit CDC's Listeria website.

For more information on preventing food poisoning, visit

CDC wants to thank the families of Stephanie, Michael Hauser, and Paul A Schwarz; the Marler Clark group; the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the STOP organization for providing public awareness about food safety and those impacted by Listeria and other foodborne illnesses.