Food safety is vital for everyone – but especially for pregnant women, their unborn babies, and children younger than five. This booklet explains why and provides real-world advice on how to lower the risk of foodborne illness for pregnant women and their unborn babies, and how parents can protect their young children from foodborne infections.
In addition to the information in this booklet, talk with your health care provider about any foods or other products to avoid because of any special health needs for you or your child.
Food Safety: Why It’s Critically Important for Pregnant Women, Their Unborn Babies, and Children Under Five
When disease-causing bacteria, viruses, or parasites (germs) contaminate food, they can trigger foodborne illness, often called food poisoning. While the food supply in the United States is among the safest in the world, it can still be a source of infection.
- According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 48 million persons — or 1 of every 6 people — get foodborne infections each year. Of those, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from their foodborne illness.
- Pregnant women are at high risk of developing food poisoning because pregnancy affects their immune system’s ability to fight foodborne infections. The immune system is made up of a network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to protect the body against infectious organisms and other invaders.
- Unborn babies are just beginning to develop immune systems and have little power to resist foodborne disease.
- Because of the immune system changes in women during pregnancy and the developing immune systems of unborn children, they are both especially at risk for illnesses caused by Listeria monocytogenes and Toxoplasma gondii. The infection caused by these two organisms can pass to an unborn child even if the mother doesn’t show signs of infection.
- Listeria monocytogenes (Lm) is a harmful germ found in many foods, including ready-toeat refrigerated foods like deli meats, unpasteurized (raw) milk, and such foods as soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk. Lm can lead to a disease called listeriosis. Every year, 2,500 Americans become ill with listeriosis — 1 out of 5 cases result in death. About one-third of listeriosis cases happen during pregnancy. Listeriosis can cause miscarriage, premature delivery, stillbirth, and serious sickness or death for a newborn baby.
- Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite found in many food sources, as well as cat litter boxes and other areas where cats may leave their waste. It can cause hearing loss, blindness, and brain damage in babies.
- Other organisms that can cause food poisoning, including Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E. Coli, also may lead to health complications for pregnant women, unborn babies, and newborns.
- Children younger than 5 years have a high risk of foodborne illness and related health problems because their immune systems are still developing, and they cannot fight off infections as well as older children and adults. Also, young children make less stomach acid that kills harmful bacteria, making it easier for them to get sick.
- Because young children’s bodies are small, the vomiting and/or diarrhea often resulting from foodborne illness can lead to serious dehydration.
- In children under 5 years, some foodborne infections with the bacterium Escherichia coli (E. coli) can lead to hemolytic uremic syndrome, a severe complication that can cause chronic kidney disease, kidney failure, and death. E. coli infections are likely to come from undercooked ground meat, unpasteurized (“raw”) milk, unpasteurized fruit juice, lettuce, spinach, sprouts, and even frozen cookie dough, if eaten before it is cooked.