Should people over 50 heat cold cuts to avoid listeria?

The risk may be small, but the failures are tragic.

Governments routinely warn that immunocompromised people, including expectant mothers and the elderly, should refrain from certain ready-to-eat refrigerated foods like deli meats and smoked salmon because of the risk of listeriosis.

Elizabeth Weise writes in today’s USA Today that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been saying for at least 11 years now that people over 50 and especially those over 65 should avoid hot dogs, lunch meats, cold cuts and other deli meats unless they are reheated to 165 degrees — "steaming hot" in CDC’s words.

The government also says you shouldn’t keep an open package of sliced deli meat more than five days, all to reduce the risk of infection from a bacteria called listeria. But some question whether the country’s been paying attention.

Barbara Resnick, incoming president of the American Geriatrics Society and a professor of nursing at the University of Maryland, knows of no one over that age who heats deli meats to that level and says she’s never seen a case of listeriosis in a patient.

Neil Gaffney, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service said, "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."

Mike Doyle, a professor of food microbiology at the University of Georgia said about 85% of listeriosis cases are linked to cold cuts or deli meats, and that today almost all packaged lunch meats contain either added sodium lactate, an acid formed by fermentation, or potassium lactate, fermented from sugar, as antimicrobials. That’s what he looks for when he buys cold cuts.

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

Listeria 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.

Douglas Powell a professor of food safety at Kansas State University, said, "And you can’t see, taste or smell that it’s there.”

CDC also says don’t keep opened packages of lunch meat, or meat sliced at the local deli, for longer than three to five days. That’s another one no one pays attention to, says Kansas’ Powell.

"Anecdotally, lots of people keep cold cuts in their refrigerator far longer than they should. People keep them for one to two weeks. That’s the key message. If you get it from the deli counter, four days max."

What wasn’t included in the story is evidence of listeria-related tragedies in other countries – countries that may not have approved those listeria-restraining additives.

Twenty-three elderly people died in Canada in 2008 after eating listeria-laden cold-cuts from Maple Leaf Foods. Later that year, listeria in soft cheese in Quebec led to 38 hospitalizations, of which 13 were pregnant and gave birth prematurely. Two adults died and there were 13 perinatal deaths.

The New South Wales Food Authority said last month the Authority provides information on listeria to pregnant women to allow them to make an informed food choice regarding the risk and how to minimize it. It is not to say that every piece of deli meat has Listeria on it, but some foods have a higher potential rate of contamination than others, and it is better to avoid them.

The risk of acquiring listeriosis is low. However the consequences for a pregnant woman contracting listeriosis are dire.

While the Authority may be accused of ‘being over the top’, we may also be accused of neglecting pregnant women if we did not provide this information so pregnant women could make informed choices in what they eat.

Over the last 5 years in Australia there have been between 4 and 14 cases of listeriosis diagnosed in pregnant women or their babies each year. These infections have resulted in the deaths of 8 fetuses or newborn babies.