90% Of Listeria Cases Stem From One Grocery Store Item

Though they are rare, listeria infections mostly all come from the same source.

Food poisoning is a scary thing. It's often more of a nuisance than a life-threatening situation, though it certainly can be the latter, and it can put us off otherwise innocuous foods for years to come. Listeria is one type of bacteria linked to food poisoning that you've probably heard about in the context of grocery store recalls, and several high-profile listeria outbreaks around the country have involved tainted ice cream. However, despite the stories that make headlines, ice cream is not the food most likely to be linked to listeria cases. To find that, look no further than the deli counter.


A recent study from the International Journal of Food Microbiology found that over 90% of listeria cases come from deli meat, with ready-to-eat salads the second most prevalent source, at about 5%.

Who is most at risk from a listeria infection?

The CDC says that around 1,600 people become sick from listeria every year, with 260 fatalities. Those who are most susceptible to an infection are pregnant people, babies, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems.


You'll often hear that those who are pregnant should avoid eating deli meat, and that's due to potential listeriosis. While chances of infection are slim, they can be greatly reduced if the meat is cooked to steaming in a microwave, killing the bacteria at high temperatures. However, many people might find it's easier to avoid deli meat entirely.

What are the symptoms of a listeria infection?

First off, just like a lot of foodborne illnesses, you'll probably get hit with the fun stuff: diarrhea, vomiting, or both. You can also come down with a fever and get flu-like symptoms like headaches, muscle aches, fatigue, and a stiff neck. Most of these symptoms are manageable, but if you're part of the vulnerable population listed above, you should go see a doctor immediately.


Why is deli meat so susceptible to listeria contamination?

Prepackaged deli meat is less likely to carry listeria bacteria, but at a deli where meat is sliced on premises, listeria is much more likely to spread. That's because more elements are involved in on-site prep: If one item is contaminated, anything that comes into contact with a surface that it has touched—cutting boards, deli slicers, hands, utensils—can easily spread the bacteria to other foods.


The listeria bacteria can continue to multiply in refrigerated environments as well, which is why the CDC recommends you consume your deli meat within three to five days after purchasing it.

Though listeria won't cause a healthy adult more than a few days' suffering, it's best to stay vigilant. Throw away anything in your fridge you have doubts about—no club sandwich is worth the risk.