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  1. People at Risk of Foodborne Illness

Medical Professionals Fast Facts - Food Safety for Moms to Be

At-A-Glance | Fast Facts | Foodborne Pathogens | Poster

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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 two 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. 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, intellectual disability, 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 and Toxoplasma.

Good food safety practices benefit everyone!

Also see Dietary Advice for Moms-to-Be.


  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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