Does all this Listeria mean that you have to quit eating deli meats cold turkey? Will you have to say oh geez to deli cheese too? Well, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announcement is now warning that anyone at higher risk for severe Listeria illness may want to avoid eating meat or cheese from any deli counter. That’s because an ongoing Listeria outbreak has been linked to deli meats and cheese. The outbreak has already left at least 16 people sick, 13 hospitalized, one with pregnancy loss, and one dead across six different states. This outbreak has been going on since at least April 17, 2021. So it’s not clear whether we’ve seen the “wurst” yet as it typically takes three to four weeks to determine whether a case is part of an outbreak.
Here’s a CDC tweet with the warning:
This deli-cut situation isn’t Gouda news if you are pregnant, a newborn, over 65 years of age, or someone else with potentially a weaker immune system and thus are at higher risk for more severe Listeria illness. Whereas most people suffer only fever, diarrhea, and potentially headaches, nausea, vomiting, muscle pain, or joint pain after swallowing the Listeria monocytogenes bacteria, severe illness can result when invasive listeriosis occurs. The word “invasive” typically is not positive. You don’t tend to hear things like “I had some really invasive coffee and it was great” or “my thong is very invasive and that’s what I like about it.” Invasive listeriosis is when the bacteria gets through your intestinal walls into your bloodstream and potentially to other parts of your body such as your central nervous system. Central nervous system involvement can result in neurological symptoms like a severe headache, stiff neck, confusion, and even convulsions. Invasive listeriosis has fairly high mortality, with about 20 to 30% of those with such a condition not surviving.
If you are pregnant, a Listeria infection can leave you in even more of a pickle. You can have a miscarriage, a premature delivery, or other complications. The newborn can have a life-threatening infection as well. That’s why you are advised to avoid deli meats, soft cheeses, and other foods that could be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes when you are pregnant.
Deli meats and cheeses made the cut as suspect sources of the outbreak after public health officials had interviewed 12 people who had gotten sick. Of these, all but one had gone deli up with their eating. Officials haven’t yet pinpointed a single specific location where contamination with the bacteria may have occurred, though. While five of the seven cases in New York did get their sliced deli meat or cheese from one of several NetCost Market locations, NetCost Market delis didn’t “meat” the criteria for being the sole source of the outbreak. People have gotten sick after getting meats and cheese from other deli locations, suggesting that the source may actually be someone or some entity that supplied the food to these delis. Besides the seven from New York, one person from California has gotten sick, two from Illinois, three from Maryland, two from Massachusetts, and one from New Jersey.
Of course, a wide range of people eat meats and cheese from delicatessens. It’s not as if a deli will have signs that say, “Turkey Only for Teens” or “Pâtés for Paternity.” So it’s not surprising that those who have gotten ill range in age from 38 to 92 years and that the 62% to 38% male-to-female split of cases isn’t overwhelmingly skewed towards one sex. Interestingly, 11 of the people affected were of Eastern European background or speak Russian. This doesn’t mean that speaking Russian will somehow make you more susceptible to a Listeria infection. It does raise the question, though, whether the delis affected by this outbreak tend to serve certain communities.
The 16 cases are likely a significant underestimate of the true size of the outbreak. That’s because many Listeria illnesses tend to go unreported. When you suffer diarrhea, your first inclination probably isn’t, “I’m going to tell everyone.” There’s a lot of suffering in silence when it comes to the runs. Therefore, officials have to dig further before they can meat out more specific recommendations on what to avoid. So until further notice you may want to be careful with your meat, meaning the kind that you got from a deli. This applies to such cheese as well. The only way to kill Listeria monocytogenes bacteria is to heat your food to a piping hot internal temperature of at least 165°F. That may be practical when dealing with a hot dog but it could turn a cold cut sandwich into a really hot cut sandwich. Plus, you have to be careful with anything that contaminated meat or cheese touches. Oh, and don’t go spraying disinfectant on your meat or cheese. That’s never a good idea.