Better Me

Listeria – Just How Serious Is It?

Our family loves ice cream, and it’s a very rare occurrence when we don’t have some in the house. So, we were quite alarmed to learn that Blue Bell is pulling all of its products off the shelves, and the FDA is investigating after several people became ill with listeria; a few even died after eating the ice cream. Prior to this outbreak I admit I was a bit ignorant on just how serious listeria could be.

I turned to Frank LoVecchio, DO, medical toxicologist with the Banner Poison & Drug Information Center to help shed some light on this bacteria.

If infected with listeria, what are the symptoms?

Symptoms of listeriosis are variable; most people who are infected have few or no symptoms. When symptoms of listeria infection are present, they usually consist of fever, diarrhea and nausea. More serious forms of listeria, in certain patients, can infect the brain or cause meningitis. The patients who may die from brain infections associated with listeria are extremely rare and have diseases such as AIDS or cancer or severe alcohol disease, etc.

How dangerous is it?

The chance of developing listeria infection, even after ingestion of a contaminated product, is very small. The majority of people with listeria infections clear the infection within a week. People with an altered or damaged immune system have the highest risk of getting listeriosis and its more severe complications. Specifically, people at much higher risk include pregnant females, newborns, the elderly, diabetics, cancer patients, AIDS patients, patients with kidney/renal diseases, alcoholics and those patients undergoing any immune-suppression therapy, such as cancer treatment. Most individuals who die from listeriosis have one or more of these medical problems.

Patients at increased risk, especially pregnant women, usually require antibiotic treatment to prevent, halt or slow the development of more severe disease to themselves and unborn child. Early effective antibiotic treatment of patients with brain infections or pregnant females may be lifesaving for the fetus.

Is Blue Bell being overly cautious pulling all its products off the shelves, or is it really that serious?

The chances of people getting sick is extremely low. Until they control the source, it is in the public’s best interest. The risk/benefit it too great. Alternative ice creams are generally safe. Keep in mind listeria has also been found in foods such as cheeses, processed meats and on some produce (many will remember the cantaloupe outbreak from 2011).

I always thought ice cream was “safe” from food-borne illnesses because it was frozen, so how are people getting sick?

Listeria cannot survive if something is truly frozen (0 degrees Celsius), but if it sits out for example, and the ice cream starts to get warm, listeria can start to replicate. Listeria bacteria may hide in certain areas, such as inside a drain, on a certain portion of a food-processing machine or even inside damp, moist walls. It is all over soil, but most fruits and vegetables aren't tainted by it. We do not fully understand why outbreaks of food-borne pathogens occur when and why they do.

But I really love my ice cream…do I really have to throw it away?

It is safest to throw away any Blue Bell ice cream for now. Return it to your store of purchase for a full refund or exchange it for another brand of ice cream for now. It is best to be conservative and error on the side of caution.

Do I need to scrub down my freezer after I toss it out, or are there any precautions I should take?

As long as it’s been enclosed and hasn’t spilled, you shouldn’t have to worry about scrubbing down your freezer. If you do need to clean up, hot soapy water will do the trick.

Also see: Do you scream at ice cream? (Infographic)

Infectious Disease
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