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New CDC Vital Signs: Listeria Food Poisoning Striking Hard at Nation’s Most Vulnerable

Sometimes foods we love and count on for good health are contaminated with germs that cause serious illness and can be deadly for certain people. Listeria, while rare, is one of the most deadly germs spread by contaminated food. The report discusses:

  • Most at Risk: Listeria targets older adults, pregnant women and their babies, and those with weakened immune systems. These hard-hit groups account for at least 90 percent of reported Listeria  infections.
  • Deadly Consequences: Listeria is the third leading cause of death from food poisoning. Most people who have Listeria infections require hospital care and about 1 in 5 of them die.
  • Risky Foods: Listeria can hide unnoticed in food-processing equipment and contaminate food during production and processing. Outbreaks in the 1990s were primarily linked to deli meats and hot dogs. Now, Listeria outbreaks are mainly caused by soft Mexican-style cheeses like queso fresco and other cheeses that were either made from unpasteurized milk or that got contaminated during cheese-making. Some outbreaks have also been caused by foods that people may not think of as risky for Listeria, like celery, sprouts, and cantaloupe.

Genetic fingerprinting of Listeria through CDC’s PulseNet  has identified many outbreaks. In 2004, CDC and state health departments developed a rapid response system for Listeria called the Listeria Initiative. Disease detectives rely on this to solve outbreaks faster, which prevent sickness and saves lives.

The Vital Signs report also lists actions to protect people most at risk for Listeria  infection who need safe and healthy foods as much as, if not more than, everyone else.”. Everyone, but particularly those at risk, should not eat foods made with unpasteurized milk, follow the good food safety practices of clean, separate, cook and chill, and be aware of food recalls.

For more information on Listeria, visit CDC’s Listeria  website.
For more information on preventing food poisoning, visit www.foodsafety.gov.

Graphics / Images

  • Sometimes foods we love and count on for good health are contaminated with germs that cause serious illness and can be deadly for certain people.

    Sometimes foods we love and count on for good health are contaminated with germs that cause serious illness and can be deadly for certain people.

  • Listeria Infographic

    At least 90% of people who get Listeria food poisoning are in highly vulnerable groups.

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  • Listeria Infographic

    Listeria can hide in many foods; including raw sprouts, hot dogs and deli meat, smoked seafood, and soft cheeses and raw (unpasteurized) milk.

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  • Listeria infographic

    While Listeria infection is rare, it is the 3rd leading cause of death from food poisoning.

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  • Listeria monocytogenes (blue) and other Listeria species (white)

    Listeria  monocytogenes (blue) and other Listeria  species (white).

    Listeria  are bacteria commonly found in the environment.  Listeriosis, a rare disease caused by these bacteria, occurs when someone eats food contaminated with Listeria ; it is only diagnosed by laboratory testing.

    Image courtesy of Brian Sauders, New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets Food Laboratory Division

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  • Listeria monocytogenes (blue) and other Listeria species (white)

    Tracking Listeria  infections: In 2004, CDC and state health departments developed a rapid response system for Listeria  called the Listeria  Initiative. From 2004 to 2011 there has been a nearly five-fold increase in the number of states reporting cases to the Listeria  Initiative (10 in 2004 to 47 in 2011).

    Image courtesy of Brian Saunders, New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets Food Laboratory Division

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  • Food Safety Progress report

    Each year, FoodNet reports on the changes in the number of people in the United States sickened with foodborne infections that have been confirmed by laboratory tests. This annual report card lets CDC, its partners, and policy makers know how much progress has been made in reaching national goals for reducing foodborne illness.

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  • Food Safety Progress report

    Did you know you can search CDC’s data to find foodborne outbreaks by year, state, location, and pathogen, including Listeria ? YOU can be a foodborne disease detective using CDC’s Foodborne Outbreak Online Database (FOOD).  
    Discover  how recent outbreaks reveal  foods not considered typically considered  risky for Listeria , like celery, sprouts, and cantaloupe.

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  • A variety of cheeses

    Listeria  can contaminate food during food production and processing. It can hide unnoticed in food-processing equipment. Outbreaks in the 1990s were primarily linked to deli meats and hot dogs. Now, Listeria  outbreaks are mainly caused by soft Mexican-style cheeses like queso fresco and other cheeses that were either made from unpasteurized milk or that got contaminated during cheese-making.

    This is a description for image 1

  • Molecular subtyping of bacteria

    PulseNet: Tracking Foodborne Outbreaks

    Molecular subtyping of bacteria isolated from ill people by state public health laboratories is essential to detecting foodborne outbreaks.  Every state has at least one public health laboratory able to match up bacteria from sick people using PulseNet's  DNA fingerprinting technique and database. For Listeria  infections, public health laboratories can quickly help find a potential outbreak by identifying matching DNA patterns among the approximately 750 Listeria  bacteria samples submitted each year.

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  • PulseNet  graph

    PulseNet  keeps a cumulative database representing over half a million isolates of bacteria, including Listeria , from food, the environment, and human foodborne illness dating back to its beginning in 1996.

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  • CDC PulseNet database managers Steven Stroika and Beth Tolar

    CDC PulseNet database managers Steven Stroika and Beth Tolar use computer software to compare pulsed field gel electrophoresis (PFGE), or DNA fingerprint, patterns submitted from labs across the country. By monitoring trends in these patterns, the PulseNet team can find increases in case submissions across the country in real-time and quickly launch investigations into the cause of illnesses. 

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  • CDC PulseNet database managers Steven Stroika and Beth Tolar

    CDC microbiologist Jessica Halpin prepares a sample of Listeria  for DNA fingerprinting by pulsed field gel electrophoresis (PFGE). Each type of foodborne bacteria has a unique DNA fingerprint that scientists can identify using techniques like PFGE.

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  • Computer image of a Listeria pulsed field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) pattern, or DNA fingerprint.

    Computer image of a Listeria  pulsed field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) pattern, or DNA fingerprint.

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  • Lab worker

    PulseNet relies on isolates from culture-based testing methods (like pulsed field gel electrophoresis), the long-held standard in testing of specimens from patients with foodborne and other infections. Today, new and faster diagnostic technology called culture independent diagnostic testing (CIDT) that do not use cultures are being used by clinical laboratories in diagnosing foodborne infections. Because of their rapid turnaround times and less labor-intensive methods, these tests may soon replace culture-based tests.

    As this happens, PulseNet will need to develop new DNA fingerprinting techniques that do not depend on bacterial cultures.

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  • Lab worker

    New DNA fingerprinting techniques that do not depend on bacterial cultures include Advanced Molecular Detection (AMD), which combines two powerful technologies (molecular sequencing and advanced computing) to solve complex infectious disease mysteries—the who, what, where, when, and how killer microbes harm people.

    Whole genome sequencing, one part of AMD, quickly gives a lot of information about foodborne and other types of bacteria. This information will let CDC scientists put together the “puzzle” of an outbreak more quickly and at lower cost.

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  • Lab worker

    When scientists investigate a foodborne outbreak, they work to find the point of contamination and source of the food. Steps can then be taken to control the outbreak, including recalling food items and telling consumers the best actions to take. Learn about the whole investigation process here and about FDA’s CORE network and how they trace contamination back to the source, here.

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  • Do you know the 4 steps to keep your family safe from food poisoning? Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill.

    Do you know the 4 steps to keep your family safe from food poisoning? Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill.
    Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often.
    Separate: Don't cross-contaminate.
    Cook: Cook to the right temperature.
    Chill: Refrigerate promptly.

    Learn more about Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill here.

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Contact Information

CDC Media Relations
(404) 639-3286
media@cdc.gov

Spokespersons

Tom Frieden, MD, MPH

Biography

Thomas R. Frieden, MD, MPH

Clear attention to Listeria risk and changes in how food is made and processed gave us success in fighting this vicious germ a decade ago, but progress has stalled. Now we need new strategies to prevent contamination of cheeses and produce to bring infections from Listeria down even further.

Tom Frieden, MD, MPH - Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Beth Bell, MD, MPH

BiographyBeth Bell, MD, MPH

Listeria  seriously affects our nation’s most vulnerable people – the elderly, pregnant women, their babies and those already ill with chronic conditions - sending them to the hospital and in some cases killing them. People in these groups and anyone who prepares food for them should know which foods are risky and avoid them.

Beth Bell, MD, MPH - Director, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Barbara Mahon, MD, MPH

Biography

Barbara Mahon, MD, MPH

Food poisoning is always a miserable experience, but for the most vulnerable people, food safety can literally be a matter of life and death. Pregnant women, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems need to not only be really careful about the basics of food safety that are important for everyone, they also need to know that foods like hot dogs, deli meats, soft cheeses, smoked fish, and even produce have transmitted Listeria.

Barbara Mahon, MD, MPH - Deputy Chief, Enteric Diseases Epidemiology Branch, Division of Foodborne, Waterborne & Environmental Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Multimedia

Videos

Medscape: Listeria : Food Poisoning's Rare but Deadly Germ

Medscape: Listeria : Food Poisoning's Rare but Deadly Germ

Author: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Date: 02/27/2012
Food Poisoning's Rare but Deadly Germ

Food Safety Medscape Commentaries

Tips for Fresh Produce Safety

Tips for Fresh Produce Safety

Author: U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
Tips for Fresh Produce Safety

Protect Your Baby and Yourself from Listeriosis

Protect Your Baby and Yourself from Listeriosis

Author: US Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Date: 10/01/2009
Protect Your Baby and Yourself from Listeriosis
In English | en Español

Podcasts

 
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