If you’re currently pregnant, you might already be aware that deli meat such as cold cuts are on the list of foods to avoid in pregnancy (at least without heating them first). But after a Listeria outbreak among six states, the CDC is urging pregnant people, those over age 65 and anyone with a weakened immune system to avoid eating any deli meat—or any cheese purchased from a deli counter—unless it is reheated to an internal temperature of 165º F, or until steaming hot. 

In a notice posted Nov. 9, the CDC stated that there have been 16 illnesses, including 13 hospitalizations, one pregnancy loss and one death, that have been traced back to a specific Listeria strain. No single food or company has yet been identified as the origin for the outbreak. 

It’s notoriously difficult to identify a single source for a Listeria outbreak, the agency notes. “This is because Listeria spreads easily between food and the deli environment and can persist for a long time in deli display cases and on equipment,” the CDC states. “Investigators are working to identify any specific products or delis that may be contaminated with the outbreak strain.”

Pregnant people are 10 times more likely to contract severe illness from Listeria (known as listeriosis) than non-pregnant people, as a result of the somewhat weakened immune state that’s innate in pregnancy. Additionally, those over age 65 and anyone who may have a weakened immune system from a medical condition or treatment are also at higher risk. Others can also fall ill due to Listeria, but the symptoms are generally mild and similar to food poisoning, and you’re likely to recover without treatment.  

Related: A nutritionist’s guide to the best foods for pregnancy

What to do if you’re pregnant or considered high-risk

If you’re currently pregnant or considered high-risk for severe illness from listeriosis and worried about the Listeria outbreak, the CDC recommends taking the following steps: 

  • Avoid eating any meat or cheese from any deli counter, unless it is reheated to an internal temperature of 165°F or until steaming hot
  • Clean your refrigerator, containers, and surfaces that may have come into contact with deli meat or cheese from the deli

What is Listeria?

Listeria is a bacteria that can be found in contaminated water and soil. Deli meats like cold cuts, lunch meats, hot dogs, pâtés and cheeses sold at the deli are known sources of Listeria illnesses, notes the CDC. 

“This is because Listeria can easily spread among food on deli countertops, deli slicers, surfaces, and hands. Listeria is a hardy germ that can be difficult to fully remove once it is in the deli. It can survive and grow at cold temperatures in the refrigerator.” 

However, it can be killed through heating food, which is why health officials recommend thoroughly cooking deli meats and cheeses before eating.

Related: Can pregnant women eat sushi?

Symptoms of Listeria illness

Symptoms of severe listeriosis usually start within 2 weeks, but can start the same day or up to 10 weeks after, the CDC says. 

People who are not pregnant may experience:

  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Confusion
  • Loss of balance and convulsions
  • Fever
  • Muscle aches

Pregnant people may experience the following symptoms: 

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches

However, Listeria can be passed onto the fetus. The CDC warns that Listeria can cause pregnancy loss or premature birth, or serious illness or death in newborns. 

A note from Motherly: Listeria outbreaks

Any news of a Listeria outbreak can be scary, but it’s important to note that the bacteria can be killed by heating any deli meats or cheeses before consuming. However, avoiding those foods during pregnancy may be your safest option if you’re concerned. Reach out to your birth provider for more information.