Last week I covered the dangers of salmonella, despite the government and food safety experts telling us that it is now safe to eat under cooked eggs: Preparing Eggs Safely
Food Safety – #Lysteria – You cannot see it but it sees you..the perfect host!
Also last week in the UK headlines, the appalling cover up about the percentage of prepared sandwiches, supplied to hospitals and care homes that contain Listeria.. and it is only the fact that three patients died and other are seriously ill that it has been uncovered.
In the papers: Health bosses ignore warnings about contaminated sandwiches
- Health bosses have been accused of repeatedly ignoring warnings over the deadly risks of contaminated sandwiches.
- Three patients have died and another three remain seriously ill after eating sandwiches infected with listeria – a deadly foodborne bacteria – at two hospitals in the North West.
- But research by the Government’s own health agency had previously warned that one in 40 hospital and care home sandwiches may be contaminated.
I am sure that if you are a regular reader of my health blogs you already know that I am not an advocate for industrialised foods. Some of our food is processed before it reaches the end user and some of that does involve making sure that it is safe to consume.. such as pasturised milk. But as in the case of eggs last week, some of those that find themselves into the food chain and into packaged food does not necessarily come from regulated sources.
There is also the intervention of humans and their bacteria into the equation and whilst reputable food providers will ensure that their workers are suitably clothed including wearing gloves, there are no guarantees.
The sandwich manufacturing industry as worth about £8 billion a year according to an article in the The Guardian.
With prices ranging from £1.50 to £10.00 on the shelves of supermarkets, garages, newsagents and provided to schools, hospitals and care homes.. we are talking billions of sandwiches each year with many being produced in unregulated premises.
You might ask why do more people not become ill after eating a sandwich that contains listeria… Well we all have the occasional mild stomach upset and say to ourselves that something we ate must have disagreed with us! Difficult thought to pinpoint the culprit since it could have been a food that was eaten in the last 24 to 72 hours.
In the case of listeria infection it is even more complex as it came take three weeks for symptoms to appear!
If we have a robust immune system we shrug it off, but if we are a child, someone with a compromised system, or are elderly it can have a devastating effect.
Here is more about listeria….
We often hear horror stories of insects or small animals found in food that we buy – let me tell you the worst thing is to find only half an insect or small animal after you have eaten the rest of the food!!
There is no doubt with careful hygiene and thorough cooking methods in the home the risks are minimised but more and more we are becoming social animals who eat out in restaurants or who compromise and buy ready prepared meals in our local supermarket.
I cannot say in all honesty that everything that I put into my mouth is prepared by me alone from fresh, guaranteed organic sources. With the best intentions in the world it is impossible not to have food in your house that has not passed through several human hands before reaching our table. Although food handling regulations are much tougher I am afraid the realisty that many of those hands will have been unwashed!
The best that we can do is prepare from scratch when possible and ensure that we cook all food to the correct temperatures that are sufficient to kill the majority of bacteria and viruses.
Listeria is a genus of rod-shaped bacteria found in animal and human faeces, on vegetation and in some soil and water. It is a parasite that thrives in warm and cold-blooded animals including of course humans.
A member of the Listeria family is called monocytogenes and can cause the illness listeriosis. It is unfortunately very resistant to a number of first line defences such as freezing, drying and to some extent heating. It can grow in temperatures ranging from just above freezing to 113 degrees Fahrenheit which includes the temperature range we use for refrigeration.
The most common source of infection is ready to eat meat foods including hot dogs, cut meats, dry sausage and pre-cooked poultry. Although the preparation of dairy products such as soft cheese includes pasteurisation the food can become contaminated after cooking.
Since many sandwiches are made from meat or poultry and contain raw salad which could also be contaminated, you are at risk if they have been made without the strictest food safety protocols in place.
Who is most at risk of infection?
As is usual in these cases the very young and very old are the most vulnerable. However with Listeria pregnant women are definitely at risk, which is why it is usual to recommend they do not eat products such as soft cheese during their pregnancy. They are at risk of miscarriage or premature labour and the infection of the new-born baby.
Anyone who is already ill and has a weakened immune system will be susceptible especially those undergoing cancer treatments. Certain medications can leave you open to infection such as cortisone.
Most healthy children and adults are resistant to Listeria and most people who are infected will recover within a few weeks. There have been cases however that have developed into life threatening conditions such as blood poisoning, meningitis or encephalitis.
Holidays are fun and going abroad to some sunshine is a welcome break from our sometimes inconsistent summers.. but do take into account that not all countries have the same rigid food safety standards as your home country. Most of the EU has adopted similar and stringent practices but you do need to be careful about where you buy prepared foods from.. And this also applies to eating in hotels where the salad bar looks enticing but is still raw food and may be contaminated.
What are the symptoms of a listeria infection?
One of the problems connected with detecting the presence of the virus is the length time between contamination and the first symptoms appearing which is usually around three weeks. It is further complicated by the varied nature of the symptoms but the most common ones are similar to the flu with a fever and muscle aches. There will likely be a gastric upset and in most cases stiff neck, headache and confusion.
The danger in the case of a pregnant woman is that she might only experience mild flu like symptoms and be unaware of the danger to her unborn child.
How do we prevent infection?
It is impossible to eradicate Listeria completely but you can take precautions that will limit your exposure. Making your own sandwiches if possible is not just the safest as long as you follow food safety guidelines, but is considerably cheaper too… about a quarter of what you would pay for a manufactured sandwich.
- Unless you are confident that you are buying sandwiches from an established and reputable provider (most major supermarkets for example have a reputation to maintain, but still check sell-by dates).
- Bear in mind that sandwiches are made with food products from multiple sources and even if they are not contaminated they may become so during the production of the finished sandwich.
- As with all food you really must prepare appropriately.
- As with other bacterial and viral contaminants I have covered, storing your food correctly is very important. Always store your meat and poultry at the bottom of the fridge so that they cannot drip on other foods and always put cooked foods on plates that have not held the raw meat.
- Wash your own hands regularly and encourage your family to do so, as they are likely to be in and out of the kitchen and fridge at some stage during the cooking process.
- Thoroughly cook and re-heat meat, fish and egg products and do not consume raw even if you are an avid steak Tartare fan.
- Do not drink milk that has not been treated. Even if you live on a farm, milk straight from the cow could have been contaminated by the animal’s faeces.
- Keep your kitchen and utensils spotless using very hot water and soap.
- Wash all vegetables and fruit thoroughly.
- Ensure that any soft cheeses are from a reputable source. Buying direct from the market or from the supermarket deli counter may not be the wisest choice. At least if the product is wrapped and sealed at source it will have not had the same opportunity to be infected. Some of the cheeses that are possible sources of the infection are Feta, Brie, Camembert, Blue Cheeses and other cream cheeses, as these have not been pasteurised.
- When you have cooked food never allow to stand for more than two hours before eating. They should be kept at temperatures above 140 degrees Fahrenheit; anything below that and the L. monocytogenes will thrive.
- When you are out for a meal do not accept any meat that is totally uncooked in the centre, particularly minced beef products such as burgers. Send back and ask for a fresh plate, bun and salad.
- Always refrigerate food that you have bought within two hours of purchase. Take cooler bags with ice packs to the supermarket if you are intending to be longer than that.
- If you are pregnant you should avoid the above soft cheeses altogether along with smoked fish, sushi and pates and meat pastes from the deli. Canned pates and meat spreads have been treated to prevent bacterial infection but they contain preservatives and other additives that you may wish to avoid.
How do you treat listeriosis?
- If you develop a stomach upset with flu like symptoms and a stiff neck it is likely that you have listeriosis, although a blood test would be needed to confirm that diagnosis.
- Go to your doctor and if he determines that is the problem you will be treated with antibiotics. Pregnant women will be treated immediately and this will help to protect the foetus from infection.
- As with any gastric upset the very young and elderly become dehydrated very quickly which can lead to further complications. Always ensure that you are taking in plenty of fluids to help your body flush through the virus and as soon as you can eat foods that will help your body boost both your immune system and restore your friendly bacterial balance.
- Onions and garlic have anti-bacterial properties and drinking green tea can also help.
- When you are ready to eat food, prepare vegetable soups and eat bananas to help restore mineral and electrolyte balance.
- Do not drink alcohol or other stimulants as your liver needs to recover and get on with the job in hand which is eliminate toxins from your body.
- Rest and allow your body to recover before undertaking any exercise or any vigorous activity.
If symptoms persist for more than 24 hours with small children and the elderly or 48 hours if you are normally a fit adult then you should talk to your doctor.
It is not my intention to stop anyone from buying sandwiches that have been pre-prepared but it is important to be aware of the risks and to also take action should you develop any food related health issues.
©Sally Cronin 2019
My nutritional background
I am a qualified nutritional therapist with twenty years experience working with clients in Ireland and the UK as well as being a health consultant on radio in Spain. Although I write a lot of fiction, I actually wrote my first two books on health, the first one, Size Matters, a weight loss programme 20 years ago, based on my own weight loss of 154lbs. My first clinic was in Ireland, the Cronin Diet Advisory Centre and my second book, Just Food for Health was written as my client’s workbook. Since then I have written a men’s health manual, and anti-aging programme, articles for magazines and posts here on Smorgasbord.
If you would like to browse my health books and fiction you can find them here: https://smorgasbordinvitation.wordpress.com/my-books-and-reviews-2019/
Thank you for dropping in today and I look forward to your feedback and questions.. Sally