Food Safety

What is a foodborne illness?

It’s a sickness that occurs when people eat or drink harmful microorganisms (bacteria, parasites, viruses) or chemical contaminants found in some foods or drinking water.

Symptoms vary, but in general can include: stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, headache, or body aches. Sometimes you may not feel sick, but whether you feel sick or not, you can still pass the illness to your unborn child without even knowing it.

Why are pregnant women at high risk?

You and your growing fetus are at high risk from some foodborne illnesses because during pregnancy your immune system is weakened, which makes it harder for your body to fight off harmful foodborne microorganisms.

Your unborn baby’s immune system is not developed enough to fight off harmful foodborne microorganisms.

For both mother and baby, foodborne illness can cause serious health problems – or even death.

There are many pathogens (bacteria, virus or parasite) that can cause foodborne illness, such as E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, Listeriosis monocytogenes and Toxoplasma gondii.

Pregnant women should not eat:

  • Cold or lukewarm hotdogs, cold cuts, or lunch meats (such as ham, turkey, salami, liverwurst, and bologna). If you want a deli sandwich, the meat should be steaming hot.
  • Soft cheeses, such as brie, feta, camembert, roquefort, queso blanco, or queso fresco.
  • Blue cheese or other cheeses with mold or blue veins.
  • Refrigerated meat spreads.
  • Refrigerated smoked fish or smoked seafood (such as mussels and clams).
  • Raw milk or unpasteurized milk.
  • Raw alfalfa sprouts; other raw sprouts.
  • Unpasteurized juices. Do not drink apple cider unless the label says “pasteurized.” Before ordering a smoothie or other juice drink, make sure that it is made with pasteurized juices.
  • Raw meat, fish, chicken, turkey, goose, or duck. Do not eat raw hamburger meat, raw clams, raw oysters, or sushi made with raw fish.
  • Rare meat, fish, chicken, turkey, goose, or duck. Use a food thermometer when you cook meat. Cook beef, pork, lamb, or veal until the inside of the meat reads 160oF on the thermometer. Cook chicken, turkey, goose, duck, and other poultry until the inside reads 180oF on the thermometer.
  • Raw or soft-cooked eggs; eggs over easy; eggs with a runny yolk.
  • Caesar salad dressing made from raw eggs.
  • Raw cookie dough or cake batter.
  • Hollandaise sauce, béarnaise sauce, or sauces made with uncooked eggs.
  • Unpasteurized eggnog.
  • Uncooked puddings, custards, or desserts made with uncooked eggs (such as chocolate mousse).

For a table detailing the major pathogens that cause foodborne illness, please click here (pages 4 and 5).

Here are 4 Simple Steps you should follow to keep yourself and your baby healthy during pregnancy and beyond!
1. CLEAN
  • Wash hands thoroughly with warm water and soap.
  • Wash hands before and after handling food, and after using the bathroom, changing diapers, or handling pets.
  • Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and countertops with hot water and soap.
  • Rinse raw fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water.
2. SEPARATE
  • Separate raw meat, poultry, and seafood from ready-to-eat foods.
  • If possible, use one cutting board for raw meat, poultry, and seafood and another one for fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Place cooked food on a clean plate. If cooked food is placed on an unwashed plate that held raw meat, poultry, or seafood, bacteria from the raw food could contaminate the cooked food.
3. COOK
  • Cook foods thoroughly. Use a food thermometer to check the temperature
  • Keep foods out of the Danger Zone: The range of temperatures at which bacteria can grow – usually between 40° F and 140° F (4° C and 60°C).
  • 2-Hour Rule: Discard foods left out at room temperature for more than two hours.
4. CHILL
  • Refrigerate or freeze perishables (foods that can spoil or become contaminated by bacteria if left unrefrigerated).
  • Use ready-to-eat, perishable foods (dairy, meat, poultry, seafood) as soon as possible.
  • Your refrigerator should register at 40°F (4° C) or below, and the freezer at 0° F (-18° C). Place an appliance thermometer in the refrigerator, and check the temperature periodically.

For more detailed information regarding food safety, please click here.

Fish and Pregnancy

We know that fish can be very nutritious and are packed with great nutrients such as omega-3s, the B vitamins and lean protein. These are essential for growth and development. But unfortunately, fish can also have some unhealthy contaminants. The main concern with regard to eating fish during pregnancy has to do with the amount of methyl mercury contained in the fish.

Nearly all fish have some levels of mercury in them and some more than others. As a safety measure the FDA has set a limit for the amount of methyl mercury that is safe to consume as 1 ppm (part per million). This conservative limit is actually 10 times lower than the smallest level of mercury known to be harmful. For this reason most fish can be safely consumed in pregnancy because the amounts of mercury in them range from .01 to .5 ppm, a value that is 100% to 50% lower than the FDA limit. However, the FDA recommends that pregnant women NOT eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish (e.g. golden bass or golden snapper) because these fish can contain higher levels of methyl mercury, near the FDA limit. In addition, certain species of very large tuna, typically sold as tuna steaks or sushi can have levels over the 1 ppm limit and should NOT be eaten.

Canned tuna is the most widely consumed type of seafood in the U.S. There are actually two types of canned tuna, light tuna and white (albacore) tuna. Light tuna contains less methyl mercury than white tuna. Women are advised to eat no more than six 6-oz servings of light tuna and no more than three 6-oz. servings of white tuna per month.

Seafood is an important part of a balanced diet for pregnant women. It is good to select a variety of other kinds of fish including shellfish, canned fish, and smaller ocean fish. It is considered safe to eat 12 ounces of cooked fish per week (A typical serving of fish is 3-6 oz.) as long as the above-mentioned fish are avoided.

It is not recommended to eat non-commercial fish (fish caught by family and friends) as well as not to eat raw fish of any kind. If eating lobster, do not eat the tomalley (the green substance found in the middle of the lobster).

Salmon is a high packed omega-3 fish that does not have any methyl mercury level concerns; however, there are concerns about elevated levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in farm-raised salmon. For this reason it is advised to eat wild salmon or no more than one meal per month of farm-raised salmon.

As guidelines specific to Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) advises pregnant women not eat any fish caught in Boston Harbor (defined as Hull to Manchester) or New Bedford because of the chemical contamination of these waters. The MDPH also advises against eating bluefish due to levels of PCBs.

Food safety and pregnancy.