Listeria deli meat.jpgThe Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has been pushing for over a decade to get out the message on the risk to at risk-populations of contracting the Listeria bacteria from cold cuts of meat, such as hot dogs and deli meat.  The CDC urges those over the age of 50, and especially those over 65, pregnant, or with compromised immune systems, to avoid eating cold cuts of meat unless they have been heated to at least 165 degrees. 

As reported by food safety writer Elizabeth Weise at USA Today, the risk of listeriosis is very real:

But food-safety officials mean business about the warning. “When it comes to food safety, we’re serious: People at risk for listeriosis should not eat hot dogs, luncheon meats or deli meats unless they are reheated until steaming hot. Thoroughly reheating food can help kill any bacteria that might be present. If you cannot reheat these foods, do not eat them,” says Neil Gaffney, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service.

The recommendation is because of a food-borne bug by the name of listeria monocytogenes which causes an uncommon but potentially fatal disease called listeriosis. About 85% of cases are linked to cold cuts or deli meats, says Mike Doyle, a professor of food microbiology at the University of Georgia.

And based on FSIS risk-assessment data, meats sliced at the store pose a greater risk than meats pre-sliced at federally inspected establishments, Gaffney says.

The threat from listeria is real and not to be ignored, CDC and USDA emphasize.

“About one of five patients with listeriosis dies,” says Benjamin Silk, with CDC’s Enteric Diseases Epidemiology Branch. That’s why CDC is concerned about it, although the numbers that fall ill are still relatively low. The CDC estimates there are about 1,600 cases of listeriosis and 260 related deaths each year, only half of which are diagnosed and reported — so people are getting sick, but may not know what sickened them.

Just last year, in August, 2010 the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry announced a recall of 500,000 pounds of Veron Food Inc. meat products, including ready to eat hog head cheese and sausage after as many as 14 Listeria illnesses were linked to the company’s products. In April, 2011 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that of those sickened seven had been hospitalized and two had died as a result of their listeriosis infections. Despite its name, hog head cheese is a meat jelly made from swine heads and feet.

It’s not just the CDC raising the concern. listeriosis and cold cuts were ranked just last week as the third worst combination of a food and a pathogen in terms of the burden they place on public health, costing $1.1 billion a year in medical costs and lost work days, according to a study by the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogen Institute.

Pregnant women are one of the highest risk groups. About one in six cases of listeriosis occurs in pregnancy and when a pregnant woman gets it, there’s a 30% chance of a miscarriage, studies show.