It may be time to refresh our memories on the topic of listeria (lis-TER-ee-ah) monocytogenes (MON-o-sy-TOJ-enees) bacterial food poisoning, because of a new, far-reaching outbreak from contaminated prepared chicken from a single food preparation company in Georgia named Tip Top Poultry.

Their product was sold to many food chains nationwide.

It was mainly used in prepackaged chicken salads and other ready-to-eat chicken products sold between Jan. 1 and Sept. 24. It spurred sort of a “listeria hysteria” among the food detectives at the CDC and FDA.

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Dr. Frank Bures

Listeria monocytogenes food poisoning is different from many others such as salmonella bacteria or norovirus, which usually cause a digestive illness in hours to a couple days. Listeria monocytogenes can do that in mild cases, but more often there is a longer incubation period, from one to several weeks, before symptoms arise. There are two syndromes that are serious and grouped under the label listeriosis (-osis means “condition of”).

The first is a systemic infection beyond bowel, going through bloodstream, sepsis, and into central nervous systems causing meningitis, infection of brain coverings, and a secondary brain infection, encephalitis. These infections carry a 20% to 25% death rate. Older folks, those with weakened immune systems and newborns are most susceptible.

Occasionally, infection may cause a severe digestive upset with fever, headache, nausea and vomiting, even simulating typhoid fever.

The second type occurs in pregnant mothers. Their symptoms are usually mild, but the bacteria cross the placenta and infect the fetus. They can produce a meningitis in utero and lead to stillborn death, premature delivery and death within minutes to days afterward, or the newborn developing a meningitis within a month of delivery.

Listeria bacteria are commonly found in soil (which can lead to vegetable contamination), decaying matter, sewage, stream water, silage, various animals that are carriers, uncooked vegetables, fruits including cantaloupe (which caused a big epidemic from Colorado in 2011) and apples, pasteurized or (more often) unpasteurized milk, foods made from milk like soft cheeses or Mexican cheeses (getting Montezuma’s revenge without the trip?), and processed foods — in this case, chicken.

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Listeria monocytogenes is different from most other food poisoning organisms in its ability to grow in cold temperatures such as refrigerators or even freezers.

Pasteurization and sufficient cooking kill listeria; however, the contamination may occur between cooking and packaging. Tip Top Poultry identified its problem and shut down the plant to bring in a third-party contractor to perform intensive cleaning.

Listeria was first isolated, according to varying sources, from a World War I soldier in 1918 or perhaps 1924 — your choice. It bore a few other names over the years until 1940, when it was labeled listeria after Joseph, Lord Lister, a turn-of-the-century Scottish/English surgeon celebrated for his recognition that wound infection was due to microorganisms, and for his establishing antiseptic methods in surgery.

Believe me, in medicine it’s an honor to have a germ named after you.

Listeria bacteria have been found on every continent except Antarctica (but have we looked?) and can be cultured from feces of 1% to 5% of “normal” adults. Infection from other listeria species, not listeria monocytogenes, is common in wild and domestic animals, causing meningitis, other nervous system pictures, hepatitis and/or blood poisoning. In sheep it causes circling disease (leading to circling by buzzards).

Diagnosis is by culture of blood, urine or spinal fluid. Doctor suspicion is key to early diagnosis. Mild cases can be observed, but severe ones require swiftly administered intravenous antibiotics, especially in pregnant moms (not so much dads).

Prevention is pretty much the same as with all foods, hand washing, washing of food preparation areas, etc. In an article earlier this month in the Star Tribune, it was reported the FDA has zero-tolerance policy toward listeria because of its virulence.

Here is a perfect time to point out that saving money in the federal budget is not done best by eliminating food inspection services. If that happens, the food corporations will make more money, but we may expect more episodes like the current chicken crisis. Listeria may not be a frequently found infectious evil, but it’s a hard one to digest.

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