Listeria lessons from Gossip Girl Blair Waldorf

Last night while watching the Thanksgiving episode of Gossip Girl, queen of the Upper East Side Blair Waldorf was up to another one of her schemes. In an attempt to prove her mother is pregnant, Blair offers her food and drink pregnant women should avoid: champagne and soft cheeses.

Over Thanksgiving dinner she coyly tempts,

“Mother, here, try some camembert, it’s from Artisanal!”

When her mother refuses, Blair concedes she is pregnant.

Blair’s mother turns out not to be pregnant, and Blair never explains why pregnant women should avoid camembert. Camembert is a soft cheese, traditionally made from unpasteurized cow’s milk (although pasteurized forms exist). Soft cheeses should be avoided during pregnancy as they have been identified as sources of listeria which can cause miscarriage or stillbirth.

Amy has written more about what to avoid during pregnancy, here.

Confused Moms to Be

When I was pregnant with Sorenne in the summer of 2008, we spent a month in Canada while the Maple Leaf Listeria outbreak was, in retrospect, percolating in cold-cuts that were being consumed across the country.

If I hadn’t been informed by my food safety guru husband, I could have very easily consumed ready-to-eat deli meat on our car trip north, potentially putting my baby at risk. Sorenne turned out healthy, huge and wonderful. And we are thankful every day.

Several of my former students, friends, and family members are pregnant right now, and somehow I’ve become the expert on food safety during pregnancy. These women have expressed frustration and confusion about the conflicting information they read and receive from their doctors regarding what they can and cannot eat during pregnancy. While I generally think moderation and eliminating stress are priorities, there are a few food safety concerns that are definitely worth considering. I’ve already written on “What you can and cannot eat during pregnancy,” but in light of major outbreaks (and this is barfblog, of the 4 Rs), the information bears repeating.

Pregnant women should avoid:

       ready to eat refrigerated foods such as deli meats, smoked fish, hot dogs, sausages, pâté, and the like. If the food is shelf-stable (canned), it should be ok. Unfortunately, it was impossible to find canned pâté in Manhattan, KS during my pregnancy – but now it’s available at Hyvee.

       soft-serve ice-cream which has been suspected as a listeria risk

       soft cheeses (brie, camembert – pasteurized or not) and we are uncertain about blue-veined cheeses (I toasted or melted my cheese to alleviate my fears. Now this seems laughable since I’m not eating any dairy while I breastfeed.)

       and sprouts because they have been identified as a source of listeria and other pathogens.

Listeria is one of the main food safety concerns during pregnancy because it causes a high rate of miscarriage and stillbirths.

For further reading, consult the Bad bug book, and the CDC’s excellent site


FDA and EPA acting fishy about mercury

I love fish, and would eat it at every meal if I could.  But I know quite a few people that can’t stand it.  Some claim the smell, it’s so…. fishy.  Why eat fish in the first place? According to the American Heart Association, fish is a good source of protein and, unlike fatty meat products, it’s not high in saturated fat. It’s also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which benefit heart health.

When choosing what kind fish to eat, pregnant women and young children should stick with sea creatures with the lowest known levels of mercury, such as shrimp, oysters, clams, sardines, anchovies and herring, as well as hake, tilapia, crayfish and whiting.  Large predatory fish, such as shark and swordfish, are very likely to contain high levels of mercury and consumption of them should be restricted if not avoided by high-risk individuals.
FDA and EPA experts currently advise pregnant women and women of childbearing age, who may become pregnant, that they can safely eat up to 12 ounces — roughly two servings — of most fish a week, but should limit their intake of albacore tuna to 6 ounces a week.

Now the two agencies are in disagreement over the two-serving limit.  The F.D.A. has circulated a draft report suggesting that the vast majority of fetuses and infants would actually benefit if their mothers ate more than two servings of fish a week because fish contain highly beneficial nutrients that aid in brain development and that those benefits outweigh any potential harm.  Those contentions are sharply disputed by specialists at the E.P.A. who charged that the report had “serious scientific flaws,” relied on questionable models and should not be used as a basis for decision-making.

We’ll have to see where the final lines are drawn.  Until then, enjoy moderate amounts of safe seafood.  As with all meat products consumed by pregnant women, the fish should be thoroughly cooked and properly stored.  Pregnant women should always avoid sushi and other kinds of raw meat.


Pedigree pet food and pregnancy: Managing cross-contamination risks at home

I am now 6 ½ months pregnant and still somewhat peacefully coexisting with our four pets. But pregnancy has meant giving special attention to handwashing and avoiding cross-contamination.
Although I thought I was being overly cautious, on Sept. 13 Pedigree small crunchy bites and Pedigree large breed complete nutrition dry pet food products were recalled due to possible Salmonella contamination (see This appears to be the same food we feed our dogs and I know one of them was throwing up outside yesterday. Of course … she also likes to eat grass and other vomitous materials.

In addition to pet food which may contain pathogens, I pay close attention to the handling of dog treats which have been found problematic in the past. Our dogs have been getting their fill of bones lately because we haven’t had the usual time and energy to devote to their exercise. I try to avoid touching the dog bones when I take them out of the package and I wash the scissors I use to cut the packages open. I always wash my hands afterwards.

It really isn’t easy to think about washing hands every time you feed and pet the dogs, but the following are things I am trying to do to keep me and my future baby safe:

  • regularly wash the dog dishes
  • wash my hands every time I fill the dog water and food bowls (the dogs eat and drink, spreading any microbes from one bowl to the next)
  • wash my hands after opening treats and/or giving them to the dogs
  • wash the scissors after opening treat bags
  • wash my hands after playing with the pets
  • avoid letting the dogs lick my face of hands
  • wipe down the counter where pet treats have touched

These steps are all much more difficult for me than they sound. I’m usually very playful and affectionate with my pets, even though I no longer allow the dogs on the bed or couch. It’s also very difficult to think about handwashing when you are out on a walk with the dogs and give them treats as part of a training process. In those cases I just remind myself not to touch my face or use a wet wipe when I have one handy.

I am still learning after years of taking it for granted that my dogs’ food was safe. Food safety, even for pets, is not simple.

For human symptoms of salmonella poisoning, check out

According to an article in the North Country Gazette (April 3, 2007) related to a past pet food recall:

Pets with salmonella infections may be lethargic and have diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. Some pets will have only decreased appetite, fever and abdominal pain. Apparently well animals can be a carrier and infect other animals or humans. If your pet has consumed the recalled product and has these symptoms, please contact your veterinarian

Food safety in pregnancy is not simple

Yesterday I enjoyed an aperitif at Houlihan’s with my friend Angélique. Although the conversation was excellent, ordering was complicated for me. I wasn’t supposed to eat at least half of the items offered, and another third of them didn’t sound good to me.

Pregnancy food safety guidelines combined with changing tastes and sensitivity to smells make ordering very difficult. On our trip home from Australia on Sunday, for example, I wanted to grab a sandwich at LAX, and because we were at a deli, that left only one choice for me: a chicken Panini. Everything else had unheated deli meat – known to put me at risk for listeria.

At Houlihan’s, I used to enjoy the tuna wontons, but the tuna is only seared and I don’t trust raw fish right now. I couldn’t eat the very appetizing brie starter because the waitress didn’t think it was heated, and the bruschetta that we did share was a big question mark for me. It had goat’s cheese together with the tomato mix. We now know that tomatoes are all supposedly safe from Salmonella, but how safe was the cheese? I take at least a little comfort in knowing that I’ve been fully vaccinated against Hepatitis A thanks to my past wild travels. Angélique and I also shared a spinach and artichoke dip that came with fresh cilantro and scallions sprinkled all over the chips. I grow my own cilantro at home and know how hard it is to keep it clean and out of the snails’ reach …

Finally, very hungry, I just ate and tried to ignore the smaller risk factors. I did my best but I still didn’t feel confident that my food was safe. Who knows or can control what was happening in the kitchen?

For those who want to tell me, and every pregnant woman, how simple it is to eat safely during pregnancy, I beg to differ. See “Listeria warning for pregnant women” for example. Dr. Paul McKeown says, “Simple measures such as ensuring that the fridge is in good working order with the temperature between two and five degrees Celsius, eating food that is well within its use-by date so that harmful bugs will not have had time to grow and practising good general food hygiene will reduce the risk of listeriosis.”

We, as consumers, can reduce some of the risks but we cannot eliminate them. And I find that the more I know about food safety, the more complicated all of this becomes. When you’re hungry and the airline offers you a roll with cheddar and pastrami … and you ask your food safety expert partner, “if I pick off the pastrami, is the sandwich safe to eat and how much cross contamination might have taken place?” and he shrugs … sometimes you have to decide for yourself.