Protect Yourself While Pregnant: Food Safety Resources for Local Health Departments

Dec 10, 2015 | Guest Author

By Brittany C. Woodland, Congressional and Public Affairs Specialist, Food Safety and Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture

USDA graphicAs a mother prepares to bring a baby into the world, she has to juggle the often overwhelming demands of pregnancy: frequent doctor’s appointments, morning sickness, and the infamous food cravings, to name just a few. Food safety may not always be at the top of her mind. However, to ensure the safety of both mother and child, it is important that both mom and the people preparing her meals follow safe food handling practices. Local health departments should provide their communities with the tools, resources, and education needed to ensure healthy pregnancies free of foodborne illness.

Each year, approximately 48 million Americans suffer from foodborne illnesses. It is especially important for pregnant woman to learn how they can protect themselves and their unborn babies from foodborne illnesses. When a woman becomes pregnant, her body undergoes hormonal changes which naturally reduce the strength of her immune system’s efficiency. This places her and her child at an increased risk of contracting the bacteria, viruses, and parasites that cause foodborne illness.

Foodborne illnesses can be worse during pregnancy and may lead to miscarriage or premature delivery. Maternal foodborne illness can also lead to death or severe health problems in newborn babies. Some foodborne illnesses, such as Listeria and Toxoplasma gondii, can infect the fetus even if the mother does not feel sick. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in seven (14%) cases of Listeria infection occurs during pregnancy.

Food safety is important for everyone, but it is crucial for pregnant mothers and their unborn children. When pregnant, mothers-to-be should choose what they eat carefully; some foods are more risky than others. This is why doctors provide pregnant women with specific guidelines on which foods they should and should not eat.

Avoid raw or undercooked meat, poultry, eggs and seafood. The use of a food thermometer is recommended to check the internal temperature of the food and to ensure that the food is cooked safely. All seafood dishes should be cooked to 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Beef, pork, lamb and veal should be cooked to 145 degrees Fahrenheit with a 3 minute rest time. Ground meats should be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit and poultry products should be cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooking food to the proper temperatures provides for safe but also delicious food.

Expectant mothers should also be very selective with their intake of juice, cider, milk and cheeses. Unpasteurized juice, even fresh squeezed juice, and cider can cause foodborne illness. In particular these beverages have been linked to outbreaks of E. coli.

One particular strain, E. coli 0157:H7, can result in liver failure and death. Individuals with reduced immunity are particularly susceptible. To prevent E. coli infection, choose a pasteurized version or bring unpasteurized juice or cider to a rolling boil for at least 1 minute before drinking.

Milk that has not been pasteurized may contain bacteria such as Campylobacter, E. coli, Listeria, Salmonella or Tuberculosis. To avoid getting these foodborne illnesses, drink only pasteurized milk.

Cheeses, particularly soft cheeses, are made with unpasteurized milk and may contain E. coli or Listeria. When pregnant, a woman should avoid the following cheeses that tend to be made with unpasteurized milk: brie, feta, camembert, roquefort, queso blanco, and queso fresco. Even if made with pasteurized milk, these cheeses still pose a high risk of foodborne illness.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has prepared booklets and other materials designed to provide practical guidance on how to reduce the risk of foodborne illness in pregnant women. Local health departments can use these booklets as outreach and education tools for their own communities. In addition, FSIS strongly encourages pregnant women to check with their obstetrician, or health care provider about foods that are best during pregnancy. Visit Foodsafety.gov’s Food Safety for Pregnant Woman site for more information and resources.


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NACCHO periodically invites guest authors to write first-person accounts of their work in public health. To submit your own story for consideration, please visit our form.

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