A foodborne outbreak of Listeria linked to deli meats has hospitalized at least ten people in three states and killed one, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC is now warning certain high risk individuals to avoid deli meats unless they’re served steaming hot.
The outbreak is thought to have started sometime this summer, with all known cases having been confirmed between August 6, 2020 and October 3, 2020. Cases have been reported in Florida, Massachusetts, and New York, with victims ranging from age 40 to 89. All of the victims found so far have been hospitalized, while one person—in Florida—has died. At this point, there appears to be no single common source of the outbreak, though all those interviewed reported recently eating deli meats, both prepackaged and sliced fresh from a local deli.
Listeria is an infrequent cause of food poisoning, accounting for about 1,600 estimated cases in the U.S. annually. Most people exposed to foods contaminated with the bacteria don’t become sick in the first place. But those who do can take a turn for the worse, developing a serious and life-threatening infection that spreads beyond the gut. Usually, these cases tend to occur among older or immunocompromised people. Pregnant women are another high risk group, though it’s because the infection can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, or severe complications in newborns. Listeria is the third most common cause of death from any foodborne illness in the U.S., with an estimated 260 deaths a year.
Though outbreaks of listeria do remain relatively rare, with usually only a few per year, they can be difficult to track or contain. The bacteria easily spreads from one contaminated source of food to other nearby foods and surfaces, and the incubation period between being exposed and developing symptoms can range from one day to over two months. As a result, an outbreak may not have a single source that can be easily contained.
For now, the CDC is cautioning anyone in a high risk category to stay away from cold cuts altogether unless they’ve been cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit first (or what the CDC calls “steaming hot.”)
Additional tips for avoiding illness from Listeria include keeping unopened packages of deli meats in the refrigerator for no more than two weeks. That fridge-safe lifespan drops to five days once the packages are open or if they’re meat sliced from a local deli. And if you’re swapping bologna slices for the fresh stuff, remember to wash your hands after handling any kind of raw or uncooked meat, and keep your meat separate from other food items.