Food Safety for Moms-to-Be: Medical Professionals - Fast Facts

Food Safety for Moms-To-Be

Important information to help you educate women about food safety during pregnancy.

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Note on Fish AdviceNote on Fish Advice

On January 18, 2017, FDA and EPA issued final advice regarding fish consumption.

This advice is geared toward helping women who are pregnant or may become pregnant – as well as breastfeeding mothers and parents of young children – make informed choices when it comes to fish that are healthy and safe to eat. (This advice refers to fish and shellfish collectively as “fish.”)

For more information, see Eating Fish: What Pregnant Women and Parents Should Know.

The following content will be updated to reflect the final advice on consuming fish. Please check back for updates or sign-up to receive updates by email.

Why food safety is an issue now

Food safety has always been an important health issue. But, there are many factors that make food safety more of an issue now than ever before. For instance, today we're: 

  • Eating a wider variety of foods from all over the world.
  • Eating more foods that have been prepared outside our homes.
  • Aware of more than five times the number of foodborne pathogens than we were 50 years ago!

Each year in the U.S., foodborne illness accounts for:1

  • 48 million gastrointestinal illnesses
  • 128,000 hospitalizations
  • 3,000 deaths

For pregnant women and their unborn babies, the risks from foodborne illness are particularly serious.

Pregnant women are in the high-risk group for foodborne illness because...

  1. Pregnancy makes it hard for the mother's immune system to fight off harmful foodborne bacteria.
  2. Harmful foodborne bacteria can cross the placenta and infect the baby.
  3. The fetus doesn't have a developed enough immune system to fight off harmful foodborne bacteria.

Pregnant women are at risk for: 

  • Serious health problems
  • Premature delivery
  • Miscarriage
  • Death

Certain foodborne risks can be harmful - or even fatal - to pregnant women and their babies.
It's important for pregnant women to watch out for these three foodborne risks:

  1. Listeria monocytogenes This pathogen can cause listeriosis. It can be found in:
    • Refrigerated, ready-to-eat foods (dairy, meat, poultry, and seafood)
    • Unpasteurized milk and milk products or foods made with unpasteurized milk
    • Soil
    • Listeria monocytogenes is one of the most common causes of miscarriage resulting from infection of the fetus.2
    • Most Listeria monocytogenes infections occur during the third trimester of pregnancy.3 This is because the function of the mother's immune system is particularly reduced during this time.
    • The serious effects of listeriosis in pregnancy are suffered by the fetus or newborns rather than the pregnant woman.4
    • Listeria monocytogenes can be found in soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk.
    • Studies show that pregnant Hispanic women may have a higher incidence of listeriosis than pregnant non-Hispanic women. This is most likely because they make and eat homemade soft cheese and other traditional foods made from unpasteurized milk. 5
    • Infected fetuses can suffer mental retardation, blindness, seizures, and paralysis. 
  2. Methylmercury: A metal that can be found in certain fish. Mercury falls from the air and can get into surface water. Bacteria in the water transforms mercury into methylmercury. Fish absorb methylmercury as they feed on aquatic organisms. Methylmercury can be harmful to unborn babies if certain fish high in methylmercury are eaten by pregnant women.
    • Larger fish that have lived longer have the highest levels of methylmercury because they've had more time to accumulate it. These fish include: swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel, and shark. Pregnant women, women trying to conceive, nursing mothers, and young children should not eat these fish. It's okay to eat other cooked fish/seafood as long as a variety of other kinds are selected during pregnancy or while a woman is trying to become pregnant. She can eat up to 12 ounces (2 average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in methylmercury. Five of the most commonly eaten fish and shellfish that are low in methylmercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish. Another commonly eaten fish, albacore ("white") tuna has more methylmercury than canned light tuna. So, when choosing your two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) of albacore tuna per week.
    • Methylmercury can build up in the mother's blood stream and pass from her blood into that of her unborn child.
    • Some fish and shellfish contain higher levels of mercury that may harm an unborn baby or young child's developing nervous system.
    • Methylmercury is removed from the body naturally, but it may take over a year for the levels to drop to a safe level. This is why women who are trying to become pregnant should also avoid exposure to methylmercury
  3. Toxoplasma gondii: This parasite can cause toxoplasmosis. It can be found in:
    • Raw and undercooked meat
    • Unwashed fruits and vegetables
    • Water, dust, and soil
    • Dirty cat-litter boxes and outdoor places where cat feces may be found.
    • Toxoplasmosis is one of the least known foodborne illnesses among consumers.
    • Infants born to mothers who became infected with gondii for the first time just before or during pregnancy are at risk for severe toxoplasmosis.6 Babies can suffer hearing loss, mental retardation, and blindness.
    • Pregnant women can get toxoplasmosis from cats. T. gondii infects essentially all cats that spend any time outdoors. Cats get this parasite by eating small animals or raw meat that's infected. The parasite is then passed on through the cat's feces. It doesn't make the cat sick, so pregnant women may not know if their cats have the parasite.

The good news is...these foodborne risks are easy to prevent!

For more information on how to prevent these risks, see Listeria, Methylmercury, and Toxoplasma.

Good food safety practices benefit everyone!


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Washington State University, Food Safety During Your Pregnancy Brochure, February 2002.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Media Relations: Facts About Listeriosis, December 25, 1998.
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Futura Mama (Expecting Mother): A Model Program to Decrease Illness Associated with Unpasteurized Milk Products in Pregnant Hispanic/Latino Women, June 2, 2002.
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Parasitic Diseases - Toxoplasmosis Fact Sheet.

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Page Last Updated: 01/30/2017
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