FOCUS ON HEALTH
Food Safety During Pregnancy
By Sylvanus Thompson
Food poisoning is a major cause of preventable illness and avoidable death. The true impact of foodborne illness is not known because most persons who become ill do not seek medical attention or report their illness. However, available data suggests that approximately 30 per cent of persons in developed countries suffer from foodborne illness annually. In Toronto one in every six persons becomes ill from foodborne illness annually.
Foodborne illness is caused by eating food that has been contaminated by bacteria, viruses or parasites. Food can become contaminated by these microorganisms at any time before it is eaten, including at home during handling, storing and cooking.
There are many signs of food poisoning, but most types cause one or more of the following:
- stomach pain and cramps
- fever and chills
Depending on the type of organisms and the health status of an individual, symptoms can start within hours after eating the contaminated food, or sometimes not until days or even weeks later. Usually, people recover quickly and completely, without medical care. However, food poisoning sometimes causes serious complications, including death. This is the case for people, such as pregnant women, who are more at risk for both food poisoning and related health complications.
When a woman gets pregnant, a number of changes occur in her body, resulting in a weakening of her immune system and more difficulty in fighting off infections. This places her and the unborn baby at increased risk of contracting the bacteria, viruses, and parasites that cause foodborne illness. This could lead to miscarriage or premature delivery.
Maternal foodborne illness can also result in death or severe health problems in newborn babies, as some bacteria can go through the placenta. Some foodborne illnesses, such as Listeria and Toxoplasma gondii, can even infect the fetus although the mother does not feel sick. Since the unborn baby’s immune system is not developed enough to fight off harmful bacteria, food poisoning can be even more dangerous to the baby’s health than to the mother.
Since the baby depends on its mother for everything it needs, it is very important to pay careful attention to what is eaten and how it is stored, prepared and cooked. Some types of food can be a higher risk for pregnant women because of how they are produced and stored. In order to lower the chances of getting food poisoning, pregnant women should avoid those foods.
Foods to be avoided include:
- Hot dogs straight from the package, without further heating. These should be well cooked to a safe internal temperature
- Non-dried deli meats, such as bologna, roast beef and turkey breast
- Raw or lightly cooked eggs, or egg products that contain raw eggs, including some salad dressings, cookie dough, cake batter, sauces, and drinks (like homemade eggnog)
- Raw or undercooked meat or poultry, such as steak tartar
- Raw seafood, such as sushi, oysters, clams and mussels
- Refrigerated smoked seafood
- Raw sprouts, such as alfalfa, clover, radish, and mung beans
- Premade Meat or Seafood Salad
Efforts should be made to reduce the risk of bacteria growth and food poisoning at all stages from shopping to final consumption of foods. When buying foods, the expiry dates should be checked. Careful attention should be paid to preventing the spread of bacteria in the kitchen through thorough cleaning before, during and after food preparation.
- Keep food cool, clean, covered and protected from contamination
- Store foods at the correct temperature – make sure the fridge is at 4°C or lower
- Place perishable foods e.g. dairy and meat products, into the fridge as soon as possible after purchase
- Separate raw foods from ready-to-eat foods, keeping the raw foods on the bottom shelves of your fridge
- Refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours
- Keep hot foods at or above 60 °C (140 °F). Bacteria can grow quickly in the temperatures between 4 °C to 60 °C.
- Wash hands in warm soapy water before touching ready to eat food and after handling raw food, particularly meat, chicken and fish.
- Wash raw fruits and vegetables in clean water before eating.
- Use separate cutting boards for raw meat or seafood, and ready-to-eat foods like bread and vegetables. Wash cutting boards in hot soapy water after each use.
- Follow the instructions when heating ready-meals – always heat until they are steaming hot throughout.
- Cook all meat, chicken, fish and eggs until they are well done. It is not always possible to tell if food is safe by its colour or how long it has been cooked. The use of a thermometer to check the internal temperature is highly recommended.
- Never re-heat food more than once.
Safe food handling plays an important role in healthy pregnancy as it is easier to get a food-borne illness when pregnant. Following general food safety recommendations helps in ensuring a healthy pregnancy for both the mother and her unborn child.
( Jamaica-born Sylvanus Thompson is the Associate Director/Food Safety Lead with Toronto Public Health.)