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Can You Eat Deli Meat During Pregnancy?

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Can You Eat Deli Meat During Pregnancy?

A listeria outbreak linked to deli meat and cheese has hospitalized 13 people in six states, reports the CDC. To date, one person has died from infection; in another case, a pregnant individual who was infected lost their fetus.

Roughly 1,600 people are infected with listeria each year, among which around 260 die, according to the CDC. Unlike some foodborne pathogens that show symptoms days after consumption (like salmonella), listeria can take weeks. Once infected, afflicted individuals may show flu-like symptoms such as “fever, muscle aches, and headache,” per the CDC.

Deli meat is at heightened risk for environmental contamination, particularly at the slicing and packaging stage during which various cuts of meat might be processed through the same machinery housing listeria. While relatively healthy individuals may not show any symptoms upon infection, those with weakened immune systems—namely those who are pregnant, newborns, and adults 65 years and older—are at much greater risk for serious illness.

Pregnant people have long been advised to avoid deli meat altogether in order to minimize that risk factor, both to themselves and to their unborn fetuses. The same guidance still stands today, says Donald W. Schaffner, PhD, professor of food science at Rutgers University.

“If you’re pregnant, you really shouldn’t have deli meat,” Schaffner says. The only way to ensure that sliced deli meat is safe to eat, he adds, is by heating it to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, to guarantee that any lingering surface bacteria is killed off.

Katherine McCleary, MD, director of family medicine at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, advises her patients in accordance with CDC’s recommendations, with complete avoidance as the most effective safeguard.

She adds that the risk of stillbirth or miscarriage decreases from the first and second trimesters to the third—and, in turn, so does the risk of stillbirth or miscarriage from serious illness caused by a listeria infection.

With that context at their disposal, patients “may opt to be a bit more liberal in the third trimester” with deli meat consumption. Still, if they decide to make the informed choice to eat deli meat, McCleary urges them to procure it from a “reputable place” and eat it “in the time frame that they should be used within the fridge.”

Large outbreaks are few and far between as of recent, Schaffner says, in part thanks to incentive programs from the USDA for meat processors to employ antimicrobial chemicals that “inhibit the growth of listeria.” He cited a 2017–2018 listeria outbreak in South Africa that infected over 1,000 individuals and killed over 200. By comparison, this most recent outbreak in the US is relatively small.

Even so, it’s still safest for pregnant people to simply avoid consuming sliced deli meat, Schaffner says. The same goes for soft cheese and sliced and packaged fruit and vegetables, which carry a similar risk for infection.

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