KATIE FILION: Listeria, pregnancy and Robert Pattinson

Last night I watched The Bad Mother’s Handbook, a British made-for-TV drama starring Robert Pattinson. In it, Pattinson plays a lovable nerd, Daniel, who falls in love with pregnant teenager, Charlotte. 

Though Pattinson’s role is only supporting, he has a food safety moment when he runs to pregnant Charlotte, saving her from soft serve ice cream:

Daniel Gale (Pattinson): NO! Listeria can be present in soft cheese and squidgy ice cream, so you best get a Zoom instead.

What Pattinson’s character fails to mention is why the pregnant Charlotte should avoid indulging in this tasty treat.  Listeriosis, the illness associated with Listeria monocytogenes, can be passed from mother to unborn child causing premature delivery, miscarriage, stillbirth or serious health problems in newborns, even when the mother is not experiencing symptoms of illness.  The CDC has a list of foods to avoid while pregnant (http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/pregnancy_gateway/infection_list.htm#protect).

Foods on the list include luncheon meats and soft cheeses, and although the CDC list does not mention soft serve, several studies (Sydney 1996, Wisconsin 2003) have found soft serve to have dangerous levels of coliforms and other bacteria (associated with improper equipment sanitation and poor hygiene). Australia and New Zealand list soft serve ice cream as one of the foods pregnant women should avoid consuming.

So, like Daniel said, have a Zoom instead.

Is free soft-serve ice cream for pregnant women a good idea?

Baskin Robbins is offering free soft serve ice cream to expectant mothers on May 21, 2008, in California, Chicago, New York, Nashville, and El Paso, Texas. It’s apparently the beginning of a national roll-out of soft serve ice cream at Baskin Robbins.

I have no idea why they targeted expectant moms, or why they recruited a pregnant Tori Spelling as spokesthingy.

Andrew Reece and I did some quickie research and found the Australians, in particular, may have a problem with this promo.

Soft serve ice cream is on the Australian list of foods pregnant women should avoid. Sanitation with the equipment appears to be an on-going problem.

A 1996 study in Sydney, Australia found 49 of 86 samples of soft serve to have dangerous bacteria levels. Another study in Wisconsin in 2003, found 15 of 22 local soft serve machines at retail food service establishments to have dangerous levels of coliforms and other bacteria. In 2006, Iowa also found a high level of soft serve machines (23%) in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area to have dangerous levels of coliforms and other bacteria. Regular cleaning of machines with soap and sanitizer could reduce the number of bacteria found on the soft serve machines.

Poor hygiene can lead to the spread of foodborne illness through soft serve ice cream. Soft serve ice cream is typically kept at a higher storage temperature than frozen ice creams, which could lead to increased bacterial growth. Ice cream is high in moisture and protein content, which is favorable for bacteria to grow. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland has its own publication warning of such risks.

The risk appears minimal with good sanitation — although our research was limited and forced by time constraints. A reader asked, would I take my pregnant wife for free B&R soft serve ice cream?