According to the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pregnant women are at high risk for contracting a foodborne illness because of immune system changes resulting in increased difficulty fighting off foodborne pathogens. Additionally, pregnant women who become infected with certain pathogens can pass the infection to their unborn child.

Two pathogens, Listeria monocytogenes and Toxoplasma gondii, are of particular concern as they can result in serious illness or death in unborn children. Infection with other pathogens, such as E. coli and Salmonella, can put pregnant women at an increased risk for serious complications.

Listeria has generally been associated with foods such as soft cheeses, raw milk and deli meats. However, this organism is increasingly becoming associated with processed foods, and fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables. Pregnant women are 10 times more likely to become infected with Listeria, and can pass the infection onto their unborn children even if they do not show symptoms, which can result in miscarriages, stillbirths or preterm labor. Additionally, Listeria infection has a 20-30 percent mortality rate.

Toxoplasma infection is also a major concern in pregnant women. Toxoplasma is most often spread to pregnant women via cat feces, and pregnant women can become exposed by coming into contact with cat feces while cleaning litter boxes or while gardening. Additionally, food may become contaminated by coming into contact with contaminated soil and water. Other animals, such as sheep, goats, cattle, pigs and poultry, may also be infected with Toxoplasma, so consumption of raw or undercooked meat can also place pregnant women at risk for infection.

Food can also become contaminated with other microorganisms, such as E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, or viruses and parasites, which can cause serious illness and increase a pregnant woman’s risk for complications from infection. Given this, it is extremely important to always follow safe food handling practices including cooking food to the proper internal temperatures for safety, keeping food hot above 140 degrees Fahrenheit or cold below 40 F, preventing cross contamination — especially when handling meat and ready to eat food — and washing hands, utensils, and cutting board in hot soapy water in between handling and preparing different types of food. and the FDA have several resources available to help you reduce your risk of foodborne illness during pregnancy. Here are some tips to reduce your risk and keep you and your child healthy:

— Some seafood contains high levels of mercury. Safe seafood choices can be found at

—Make sure all seafood is cooked to 145 F prior to consuming.

— Never drink unpasteurized juice, cider or dairy products.

— Do not consume soft cheese unless it has been made with pasteurized milk as these products are at high risk for being contaminated with harmful microorganisms including Listeria.

— Deli meats, pâtés, meat spreads, hot dogs, and other deli products are at high risk for containing Listeria. Always heat these products to 165 F before consuming.

— Eggs can carry Salmonella and other harmful microorganisms. Cook eggs and egg containing dishes to 160 F and never consume products with raw eggs.

— Raw sprouts can often be contaminated with E. coli or Salmonella and should not be consumed while pregnant.

— Uncooked flour and eggs in raw dough products can be contaminated with Salmonella and E. coli. Never eat raw dough and make sure dough containing products are cooked thoroughly before consuming.

— Always wash produce thoroughly under running tap water prior to consuming. Firm skinned fruits and vegetables should be scrubbed with a vegetable brush to help remove soil and microorganisms.

For more information on protecting yourself and your unborn child from foodborne infection, visit the FDA’s website at or visit at

Smith is an assistant professor and statewide consumer food specialist for Washington State University. She can be reached at If you have a food safety question you would like to see appear in this column, send your question to us at

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