Listeria Hysteria! Can I Please Have Some Soft Cheese?

Disclaimer: This information is of a general nature, and is not intended to constitute medical advice. Newborn Mothers is not a medical service and Julia Jones is not a licensed medical professional. We do not diagnose, treat or cure any illness or condition. Should you have any health concerns, please get in touch with your midwife or doctor.


Today I want to talk to you about Listeria hysteria. I’m sure you’ve all come across Listeria hysteria. It’s also known as, ‘can I please, please eat some Camembert?!’. I’ve come across lots and lots of women asking me these questions. They’re pregnant and they’re desperate to eat soft cheese, sushi, leftovers, takeaway salad. There are so many different foods that they’ve been told they can’t eat, and they’re wondering what’s left. What can they eat? I’ve seen pregnant women go hungry at weddings, I’ve seen them fighting with waiters in restaurants, I’ve even heard an obstetrician telling a pregnant woman to eat fried food because it had a lower risk of Listeria.

Since diabetes and obesity-related illnesses are one of our biggest killers, what is the big deal with Listeria? Why are we so worried about soft cheese? I wanted to explore this a little bit, and I’m really hoping that by the end of this you’ll be feeling happy and confident with your food choices. Let’s help you avoid some anxiety, and stop you from doubting and second-guessing your diet and what you’ve been eating.

A quick disclaimer before we get into it. I am not a medical professional. I cannot diagnose or cure any illnesses. All this information is from Food Standards Australia New Zealand, the government body that ensures safe food by developing effective food standards for Australia and New Zealand. If you scroll down I will link to their website, and there a couple of good leaflets there that you can flick through if you want some more information.

What’s It All About?

So, what is Listeria? It’s a microorganism that can contaminate food and cause infection. It’s a very common bacteria, and it can contaminate many different kinds of food. And this is why we get so wound up, because it’s just a bacteria that can actually be on anything that you eat. It’s not usually dangerous; you’ve probably eaten it before in your life and it’s not been a problem. However, it is dangerous for pregnant women as it may penetrate the intestines and travel throughout the bloodstream, which can cause miscarriage, stillbirth or blood infections. It is still extremely rare for Listeria bacteria to actually cause this infection, even if you’re pregnant. There’s a higher chance of getting Listeria than the rest of the population, but it’s still pretty rare.

Moving on to what foods you shouldn’t eat and the foods that are at risk. Don’t freak out, because I will be telling you a little bit later on how you can eat some of these foods safely. But just so you know which foods are at risk, it’s cold meats. Particularly any cold, sliced food from the deli section. When you go into the supermarket it’s all laid out in front of you: meat and ham and chicken and cheese. And they’re all just lined up next to each other, so of course, if there is any tiny little speck of this bacteria on any one of those foods, it can very easily contaminate the entire shelf of food. So avoid anything like cold, cooked chicken, cold seafood, cold meats, cold cheeses that come particularly from the deli section.

The other really risky area is pre-prepared or pre-packaged fruit and vegetables. You can even buy them from McDonald’s now, little plastic bags with a cut up apple in them. Or a big bag of spinach or lettuce or salad leaves of any kind. These ones are quite high-risk as well.

Soft cheese gets a lot of attention, so any soft or semi-soft cheese (including Brie, Camembert, Cream Cheese, Cottage Cheese), all of these can be contaminated with Listeria. Pâté is another one, unpasteurised dairy and soft-serve ice cream. These are some of the highest-risk foods for the Listeria bacteria. Two recent big outbreaks of Listeria (one in Australia and one in America) were actually in rockmelon, and another one in aeroplane food.

What all this means is, no wonder you’re feeling overwhelmed. No wonder you’re confused about what you actually can eat and what’s safe. Lots of these foods are otherwise quite healthy foods for pregnancy. It’s very difficult, nearly impossible, to avoid eating every single one of the foods I just mentioned for nine entire months. This is why it’s causing so much anxiety.

But, I want you to know that there is actually some really simple solutions to this problem. There are some really simple things that you can do that can make a big difference to reducing your risk of exposure to Listeria. As I mentioned, these are off the Food Standards website.

The one take-home message, the number one thing that I want you to remember today is:

Eat freshly cooked or freshly prepared foods.

That’s really all you need to know.

Again, in an ideal world, you would cook your own food, you would prepare your own food, and you would eat it all straight away at home. So if this is the case, and you’ve got a lifestyle that allows for this, that is the number one, safest thing to do. Eat freshly cooked or freshly prepared foods.

Turn Up The Heat

Now being realistic, I know that some of you are going to want to eat in restaurants, you’re going to get a takeaway every now and again, and sometimes you’re going to want to buy something that’s ready to eat. What can you do about that?

If you want to eat leftovers (ideally they’re freshly cooked and freshly prepared, to begin with), the next day for lunch, you have to refrigerate it straight away. Refrigerate food immediately and use it within 24 hours. And when you reheat it, you have to make it steaming hot all the way through. If you’re using a microwave, sometimes it can get hot in some pockets and colder in others, so make sure you’re mixing it well and making sure it’s steaming hot all the way through. Heat will kill the Listeria bacteria, and so as long as you eat your food hot, it’s much safer. And it’s a very safe way to eat any food.

This making things really hot to kill the bacteria, it can apply to all sorts of things. So if you like to have cold meats, instead of having them on a sandwich, have ham on a toasted sandwich or ham on a pizza. The same thing applies to soft cheeses. You can put them on your pizza, have your ricotta in cannelloni, have toasted sandwiches. Anything that will heat that soft cheese all the way through until it’s steaming hot, will make it safe. It will kill any Listeria bacteria that was in there.

Wrap Me Up

The other thing, whilst we’re on the topic of meats and cheeses and that deli section, is in general, a safer way to buy any of these foods is in individual packages. If you buy the cheeses of meats that are individually packaged by the manufacturer (it hasn’t been opened), take it straight home and keep it in the fridge. It is possible for them to be contaminated after they’ve been opened, if you’ve got something else that’s got Listeria on it. Again, you can always cook it to make sure and make it safer.

If you like to eat in restaurants, this is another tricky area. Restaurants, in general, are not the most hygienic places! Order hot food. Anything that’s hot and freshly cooked will be lower in Listeria. It’s also much better if you can avoid salad bars and bain-maries. Any food that’s been sitting around, open and not steaming hot is going to be at risk of having the Listeria bacteria contaminated it.

I think that’s enough food for you to be getting on with. It you do want to click through to the Food Standards website at the links below, they’ve got quite thorough lists and charts for different foods. What’s safe to eat and what’s an alternative if they’re not safe. If you do want more information or if you’re not feeling confident with what I’ve gone through, please just click through and have a look.

Nourish Thyself

One thing I do want to say is, people tell me all the time when they’re pregnant Gosh, I can’t wait until the baby’s born! The first thing I’m going to eat is…whichever contraband food they’ve been missing for nine months. If I could offer you one small piece of advice, I would say make your first postpartum meal something that’s really nourishing and rejuvenating for your body.

Nearly 200 cultures around the world have these very traditional foods and dietary guidelines for postpartum women. If you’re interested in more about this, please check out my book ‘Nourishing Newborn Mothers’. There’s a recipe on my blog as well for a Nepalese first food for mothers, a rice pudding. Please check those out, and don’t just have ham or sushi because you haven’t eaten it for nine months and you’re really craving it. It’s not the best thing to eat after you’ve had a baby.

If you want to put this idea into action and get results, all you have to do is eat freshly cooked food or freshly prepared food. Please leave a comment if you’ve experienced any Listeria hysteria first-hand. Maybe you’ve been the victim of some stares or scowls, or maybe you’ve even seen other people having arguments about what’s safe to eat.

I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below. And, as always, please share this with any pregnant friends who might be concerned about what’s safe to eat and what’s not.

Go ahead, have your soft cheese. Cook it, it will be delicious!

First Food for New Mothers: Nepali Rice Pudding

Food Standards Australia New Zealand: Advice on Listeria