"How long have you been pregnant,” I asked the thirty-something as we filled our plates during the catered lunch at a meeting in 2000 in Ottawa.
“About six weeks.”
The American media had been filled with coverage of listeria after the 1998-1999 Sara Lee Bil Mar hot dog outbreak in which 80 were sickened, 15 killed and at least six pregnant women had miscarriages. Risk assessments had been conducted, people were talking about warning labels, and especially, the risks to pregnant women.
There was no such public discussion in Canada.
So as I watched the pregnant PhD load up on smoked salmon, cold cuts and soft cheese for lunch, I wondered, do I say something?
One of the biggest risks in pregnancy is protein deficiency. What if smoked salmon, cold cuts and soft cheeses were this woman’s biggest source of protein? (Turns out they were.)
Another risk factor is stress. I didn’t want to freak her out. Besides, who the hell am I to say anything?
We sat together during lunch and chatted about babies, her aspirations and how she was feeling. Eventually I introduced the subject of listeria by talking about a risk assessment that had recently been published by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and that maybe she would be interested in looking at the results. I felt sorta goofy.
Professor Clare Collins of the University of Newcastle studied the eating habits of 7000 Australian women to see if they were missing out on important nutrients as a result of avoiding "risky" foods that potentially carried listeria.
9News reports some pregnant women are being overly cautious about avoiding what are traditionally considered "no-no" foods, such as soft cheese, pate and sashimi, a researcher says. Oysters, smoked fish, delicatessen meats, salad bar salads and pre-cut fruit are also considered high risk for carrying the Listeria monocytogenes.
Reporting her findings in the journal Public Health Nutrition, Prof Clare said her study found that women who ate the most listeria foods reported more frequent miscarriages, but had high levels of the nutrients needed to have a healthy baby.
Conversely, those who ate moderate or low amounts of listeria foods had less miscarriages but also lower levels of nutrients like calcium, folate and Omega 3 acids.
"In those with moderate and low exposure there was no excess risk of miscarriage but the problem was their nutrient intakes were then worse," Prof Clare said.
"We're saying pregnant women need to be given more advice on how to eat healthy. If all they hear is risky foods, and they drop out all the potential listeria foods, their micro nutrient intake is going to be really bad.”
She said the existing listeria guidelines for pregnant women were entirely legitimate but needed to be rewritten to provide more information about what could be eaten, as well as what should be avoided.
There were 65 cases of listeriosis in Australia in 2008, 12 during pregnancy and one that was fatal.