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 reality is 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.
In this post I am going to focus on Listeria, which 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, including 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.
QUESTION – 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.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF LISTERIA INFECTION?
One of the problems connected with detecting the presence of the virus is the length of time between contamination and the first symptoms appearing at 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.
- As with all food you really must prepare appropriately.
- As with other bacterial and viral contaminants, 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.
On the subject of pasteurised milk vs. raw milk
The governmental guidelines are that you should not drink milk that has not been pasteurised. Even if you live on a farm, milk straight from the cow could have been contaminated by the animal’s faeces. There is a trend in recent years to drink raw milk and there is some nutritional sense to the argument and Ireland has recently made it legal to buy raw milk from farmers and recognised outlets. Here are some of the reasons that the campaigners state are important to be taken into consideration.. I have also included a link for you to head over and check it out.
Raw Milk Benefits – Nutrition
A recently published study of over 8,300 children in rural parts of continental Europe found a significant reduction in asthma development of 41% for raw milk drinkers. They were also half as likely to develop hay fever as those who drank shop bought or boiled milk. This research has linked the benefits to whey proteins in the milk which are destroyed in the process of pasteurisation (1).
The first raw milk conference was recently held in Prague. Some of the study results included significant reductions in asthma, atopy and allergies in children who drink raw milk. In most of these studies the children drinking raw milk lived on a farm. The children in the control groups usually lived in rural areas but drank shop bought, pasteurised milk (2).
A small study has shown children who are allergic to shop bought milk and react immediately to its consumption are able to tolerate raw milk without experiencing any adverse affects (2).
You may not have heard of glutathione but it is a potent anti-oxidant manufactured in our bodies which keeps vitamins C and E (also anti-oxidants) in their reduced, active forms. Anti-oxidants are essential to keeping free radicals and other toxins under control and one of the most foundational of these is glutathione. Raw milk is one of the best sources of the amino acids needed to manufacture glutathione; unfortunately these are denatured in the pasteurisation process thus preventing the body from manufacturing it (3).
You can find more information on raw milk: http://rawmilkireland.com/nutrition/
More ways to safeguard yourself against listeria.
- 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.