Listeria Outbreak: Do You Need to Avoid Deli Meat and Cheese? (2023)

Key Takeaways

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a warning about a deadly listeria outbreak in the United States linked to deli meats and cheeses.
  • As of early November, listeria has been reported in 6 states: New York, Maryland, Illinois, Massachusetts, California, and New Jersey.
  • People who are pregnant, aged 65 or older, or have a weakened immune system are considered at higher risk for severe listeria illness and should avoid eating deli meats and cheeses.

On November 9, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put out a warning that a listeria outbreak linked to deli meats (like cold cuts, lunch meats, and hot dogs) and cheeses is currently happening in the United States.

U.S. Listeria Outbreak 2022

Listeria cases linked to deli meats and cheese have been reported in New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, Illinois, California, and New Jersey.

According to the CDC’s report, the current listeria outbreak has caused 16 illnesses in six states: seven infections in New York, three in Maryland, two in Massachusetts, two in Illinois, one in California, and one in New Jersey. In addition, 13 hospitalizations, one death, and one pregnancy loss have been reported.

The most recent case on the CDC’s timeline of the investigation is listed on September 29. No new cases were reported as of November 9. However, the CDC believes that more people could be sick from the outbreak than have been identified so far.

The multistate outbreak is being investigated by the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, and public health officials in several states.

Here’s what you need to know about listeria and how to keep your family safe.

Key Points About Listeria

  • What is Listeria (listeriosis)? Listeria is a disease-causing bacteria found in moist environments, water, soil, and decaying vegetation and animals.
  • How do you get listeria? Listeria infections are usually caused by eating foods that have been contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes.
  • Which foods can cause listeria? Past outbreaks of listeria have been connected to raw or processed vegetables, deli meats, undercooked poultry, hot dogs, raw fish, ice cream, and unpasteurized milk and cheeses.
  • What are the symptoms of listeria? The symptoms of listeria infection vary but can include fever, headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, muscle aches, fatigue, diarrhea, and vomiting.

Everything You Need to Know About Listeria

Am I At Risk?

In its report, the CDC explained that listeria “can easily spread among food on deli countertops, deli slicers, surfaces, and hands” and that it’s “a hardy germ that can be difficult to fully remove once it is in the deli. It can survive and grow at cold temperatures in the refrigerator.”

If you have a fridge full of sandwich fixings you’re debating tossing out, you’re probably wondering what your chances of getting listeria are. Your risk of getting listeria isn’t the only one to think about, though; you should also consider your risk of getting seriously ill from the infection.

Andrew Handel, MD, a pediatric infectious diseases expert at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, told Verywell that the people at the highest risk for listeria infection include:

  • People aged 65 and older
  • People who have weakened immune systems or who are immunocompromised (e.g., cancer patients, transplant patients)
  • Newborns born to people who have had listeria

According to Handel, these groups are the most at-risk because they can’t fight off the bacteria as well as people with stronger immune systems could. If they’re exposed, they have a higher chance of developing a severe infection.

“Their immune system just isn’t able to protect them as well against that infection,” said Handel. “And that goes for pregnant women as well, who are also at high risk of having severe disease.”

People at Highest Risk

The people at highest risk for serious illness from listeria are pregnant people, people with weak immune systems, people aged 65 and older, and newborns.

If a pregnant person gets listeria, the risk goes beyond their illness. Anjali Bharati, DO, an emergency medicine physician at Lenox Health Greenwich Village, told Verywell that listeria can also cross the placenta and infect the fetus.

“In high-risk populations, the infection can spread to the blood and cause severe symptoms and sepsis,” said Bharati. “Sepsis is very concerning in high-risk populations and sometimes difficult to treat. It results in significant morbidity and sometimes death.”

According to the CDC, listeria infections can cause pregnancy loss, miscarriages, stillbirths, and preterm labor, as well as serious illness and even death in newborns.

Handel said that it’s less common—but still possible—for people who are not in high-risk groups to also get severe infections from listeria.

Listeria: Signs, Symptoms, and Complications

What Should I Do?

Staying alert about disease outbreaks and taking precautions as recommended by health officials is key to preventing foodborne illness and its consequences.

However, as Handel pointed out, learning about a new outbreak “shouldn’t necessarily change practices that people are following to stay safe.” If you’re in a high-risk group, Handel said “you should think about following precautions all the time.”

If you’re pregnant you should avoid all meats and cheese from a deli counter—even if you don’t live in a state that’s reporting cases of listeria.

If you are at high risk for infection but can’t avoid these foods, heat them up until they reach an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit before you eat them.

Right now, Bharati said that people in high-risk groups—particularly pregnant people—should avoid all meats and cheeses because listeria bacteria can be transmitted on slicing machines and other equipment that can be very hard to clean.

“For pregnant women, it is generally advised—no matter where you live—to avoid deli meats and cheese,” said Bharati. “If you are at high risk for severe infection and there is an outbreak, it’s best to either avoid deli meats and cheeses or bring them home and cook them to be safe.”

When you’re making a sandwich, take an extra step to stay safe. Heating deli meats and cheeses until they reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit kills bacteria that could make you sick.

While an outbreak is a reminder about the importance of food safety, listeria and other foodborne illness can still happen even when there isn’t a major outbreak. Practicing proper food storage and handling can help prevent infections. If you have symptoms of food poisoning and are at risk for serious illness, seek medical care.

What This Means For You

There is currently a listeria outbreak in the United States. If you are at high risk for severe illness (for example, you are pregnant or have a weakened immune system) avoid eating deli meats and cheeses. If you think you are sick with listeria, see your healthcare provider.

7 Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Listeria outbreak linked to deli meat and cheese.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Listeria (listeriosis): where sick people lived.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Listeria (listeriosis): investigation details.

  4. Food and Drug Administration. Listeria (listeriosis).

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Listeria (listeriosis).

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Listeria (listeriosis): symptoms.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Listeria (listeriosis): people at risk – pregnant women and newborns.

Listeria Outbreak: Do You Need to Avoid Deli Meat and Cheese? (1)

By Alyssa Hui
Alyssa Hui is a St. Louis-based health and science news writer. She was the 2020 recipient of the Midwest Broadcast Journalists Association Jack Shelley Award.

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