Pregnant Women: How to Keep You and Your Baby Safe from Foodborne Illness
So, you’re pregnant?
Congratulations! It’s such an exciting time.
It’s also a time to be even more aware of how to avoid consuming contaminated food because pregnancy brings a heightened risk for falling ill with a foodborne disease.
In this article, STOP Foodborne Illness will help you learn about why you’re more susceptible to becoming sick and foods you’ll want to steer clear of while pregnant. You’ll also get a list of symptoms to watch for and learn what to do if you suspect you’ve got food poisoning.
Pregnancy + Foodborne Illness: Quick Facts
When a woman is carrying a budding little human inside her belly, her immune system is weakened. A baby’s immune system isn’t fully developed before birth, so it needs a hand from its mother’s. This sharing of her immune system makes it harder for a pregnant woman to fight off bacteria, viruses, and parasites that cause foodborne illness.
If food poisoning happens during pregnancy, it can be (and oftentimes is) worse than for an otherwise healthy person, which can lead to miscarriage or premature delivery. Tragically, it may result in death or severe health problems in newborn babies.
Pregnancy + Foodborne Illness: Foods to Avoid
Generally speaking, foods that carry the highest risk for foodborne illness during pregnancy are certain types of meat, fish, milk, cheese, eggs, pre-made salads, and raw foods/beverages. Let’s dive in to these one by one.
- Raw Meat: Avoid rare or undercooked beef, veal, lamb, or pork (including ground beef) as it may be contaminated with E. coli. Undercooked poultry (including ground poultry) should be avoided because of potential Campylobacter and Salmonella contamination.
IMPORTANT: When cooking meat and fish, remember color is NOT a reliable indicator. Follow our safe cooking temperatures chart here and, when dining out, order meat and burgers well done.
- Deli Meats + Hot Dogs: Cold cuts (ham, turkey, salami, bologna) and hot dogs are dangerous for you and your baby due to Listeria risk. Listeria is the only bacterium that can survive at fridge temps of 40°F or less. While most people can fight it off, pregnant women are more susceptible to sickness and can suffer miscarriages resulting from eating Listeria‐contaminated ready‐to‐eat chilled foods.
- Sushi: While sushi is safe for most adults, decreased immunity during pregnancy make raw fish and raw shellfish unsafe to eat. Raw shellfish like oysters, clams, and mussels pose a concern for everybody and should especially be avoided during pregnancy.
- Fish with Mercury: Certain kinds of fish such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish (golden or white snapper), and albacore tuna contain high levels of mercury, which means they’re a big NO-NO during pregnancy. Why? Because mercury consumed during pregnancy has been linked to developmental delays and brain damage. Shrimp, crab, tilapia, cod, canned light tuna, salmon, catfish, and trout generally have a lower amount of mercury but should only be eaten in moderation (no more than 12 ounces a week).
- Smoked Seafood: Canned smoked seafood is safe to eat. However, refrigerated, smoked seafood that’s found in the deli section of your grocery should NOT be eaten.
- Raw or Unpasteurized Milk and Cheese: Make absolutely sure that any milk you drink is pasteurized (pasteurization is a heating process that kills bacteria). Most cheeses are pasteurized, but be sure to read the labels. Cheeses to avoid (unless labels clearly state they’re pasteurized) are primarily soft cheeses like brie, camembert, feta, gorgonzola, Roquefort, blue-veined cheeses, and Mexican-style cheeses like queso blanco and queso fresco.
- Raw Eggs: Raw eggs or any foods that contain raw eggs should not be eaten because of potential Salmonella poisoning. This includes cookie dough and cake batter. Bake your cookies and cake thoroughly and no licking the spoon while whipping up the ingredients (we know it’s tempting!). When eating eggs while pregnant, hard-boiled is best because both the white and yolk are cooked thoroughly, killing off any bacteria present.
- Pre-Made Salads: While pregnant, avoid salads pre-made in-store, such as potato, pasta, chicken, or seafood salad. Chilled, ready-to-eat (RTE) foods are best avoided unless they are thoroughly cooked to a safe temperature. Pre-made salads are perfect breeding grounds for Listeria monocytogenes, one of the few bacteria that will continue to grow in refrigerated foods. Remove any doubts connected to prep and storage of pre-made salads by cooking cold meats at home and preparing your own salads.
- Unpasteurized Juices/Cider: Most juices are pasteurized, but some aren’t, so be careful here. Unpasteurized juices can contain harmful bacteria, so check labels and only consume juices that are pasteurized. If you’re getting a smoothie made with juice be sure to ask if the juice is pasteurized. If it’s not, or if they don’t know for sure, it’s best to avoid it.
- Unwashed Fruits + Vegetables: Choose fresh produce that’s not damaged and wash your fruits + veggies thoroughly under running water right before cutting, cooking, and eating them.
- Raw Sprouts: Pregnant or not, DO NOT eat raw sprouts. This includes alfalfa, clover, radish, and mung bean sprouts. Why? Bacteria can get into sprout seeds and are nearly impossible to wash out, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Pregnancy + Foodborne Illness: Symptoms and What to Do
Symptoms of foodborne illness may be less severe and more difficult to detect in pregnant women because they’re similar to normal symptoms of pregnancy like morning sickness or a mild flu. Here’s a list of symptoms to watch for:
- Abdominal Pain/Cramps
- Nausea or Vomiting
- Muscle/Body Aches
- Lymph Node Enlargement
Because foodborne illness can severely harm you or your baby, CONTACT YOUR DOCTOR IMMEDIATELY if you experience any symptoms above.
As is the case with any foodborne disease, these symptoms can appear right away or as long as several weeks after eating tainted food.
Thanks in advance for helping us spread the food safety word!