• Cold cut meats can be risky for pregnant women and the elderly. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Some foods popular during the festive season can present a higher risk of listeria food poisoning. In the wake of an outbreak that claimed one life, we explain what listeria is and how to cut your risk.
Bianca Soldani

22 Dec 2016 - 5:32 PM  UPDATED 22 Dec 2016 - 5:38 PM

An outbreak of listeria in Victoria has led to the death of one person and left six others ill in recent weeks. So how much danger is there of contracting listeria poisoning?

Listeria monocytogenes is a bacteria present on many raw foods and dairy products; however it is easily killed with heat or through pasteurisation.  

Food poisoning caused by listeria is rare, with only about 60 to 80 people contracting it in Australia each year. However it can be very serious and one in five people who get infected die of listeria food poisoning.

It is often marked by flu-like symptoms such as fever, stiff neck and weakness, and the people most at risk are pregnant women (read Food Authority NSW's booklet on listeria and pregnancy here), the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.

It is recommended that these people "should not eat foods that are high risk for Listeria contamination, including pre-prepared fruits and salads, deli meats, soft serve ice-creams, and unpasteurised milk products," according to associate Professor Martyn Kirk from the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at ANU. 

“Unfortunately, lots of these foods are common at Christmas-time, and it can be difficult for people to avoid them," he says in a statement.

What to avoid

While leftovers are a popular option over the Christmas period, Lydia Buchtman from the Food Safety Information Council recommends that people most vulnerable to food poisoning stick to freshly cooked and freshly prepared foods.

She also advises they stay clear of:

  • cold meats from delicatessen counters and sandwich bars, and packaged, sliced ready-to-eat meats
  • cold cooked ready-to-eat chicken
  • pre-prepared or pre-packaged fruit or vegetable salads, including those from buffets and salad bars
  • chilled seafood such as raw oysters, sashimi and sushi, smoked ready-to-eat seafood and cooked ready-to-eat prawns
  • soft, semi-soft and surface-ripened cheeses such as brie, camembert, ricotta, blue and feta
  • refrigerated paté or meat spreads
  • soft serve ice cream
  • unpasteurised dairy products
  • products that have passed their 'best before' or 'use by' dates 

soft advice
This is why pregnant women are told they shouldn’t eat soft serve
Like they say, cleanliness is next to godliness.

What to remember

When handling and preparing food there are a number of best practice habits that will lower your risk of contracting food poisoning. These include:

  • Wash raw fruit and vegetables
  • Cook meat products and eggs thoroughly
  • Avoid products that have past their ‘best before’ of ‘use by’
  • Ensue that reheated leftovers are piping hot before eating 
  • Use different chopping boards and cooking utensils for raw and cooked foods
  • Cover food 
  • Keep ready-to-eat foods refrigerated and eat as soon as possible 
  • Defrost food in the fridge or microwave
  • Wash your hands before handling food
For more information on avoiding food poisoning when reheating food, see Accredited Practising Dietitian Duane Mellor's advice here:

Here's why you need to be careful reheating meat pies and potatoes
You may think you're being healthier and savings savvy by bringing leftovers to work the next day, but there are risks associated with reheating some foods. Here are some handy tips on how to avoid food poisoning - and four foods to be particularly careful with.

And advice for the festive season here:

’Tis the season for ... making sure our festive feasts are safe to eat
It’s summer! Which means it’s time for big gatherings, laden tables, barbecues, and lots of drinks and nibbles with friends. Amid the fun, it’s important to know how to store and serve your food safely, because food poisoning is a real danger at this time of year.