Pregnancy More Reasons for Food Safety

Handling food properly to avoid foodborne illness is always essential. Pregnancy is no exception. Besides general cautions, some issues are of special concern:

  • Listeria, a bacterium that may contaminate soft cheese, unpasteurized milk, hot dogs, and deli meats, can cause miscarriage in the first trimester and serious illness, premature birth, or stillbirth later.
  • Toxoplasmosis, a parasite linked to undercooked meat or poultry, can be passed from mother to unborn baby, causing severe symptoms including infant death or mental retardation. Because cat feces carry this parasite, avoid cat litter, always wash your hands with soap and water after handling a cat, and keep your cat indoors.
  • E. coli O157:H7, a bacterium associated with raw and undercooked meat and unpasteurized milk, is highly toxic. This life-threatening strain, which can cause severe kidney, intestinal, and brain damage, can pass to your unborn baby.
  • Lead exposure during pregnancy is linked to miscarriage and stillbirth, low-birthweight babies, and damage to a baby's nervous system. Among the sources of lead: water from lead pipes or pipes with lead solder, food served on ceramic plates with improperly applied lead glaze, and beverages kept and served in lead crystal decanters or glasses.
  • Methyl mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), chemical pollutants found in some fish, are especially harmful to unborn babies and young children, whose bodies are just developing. Mercury poisoning, for example, may damage the nervous system. No matter how you prepare or cook fish, you can't get rid of the methyl mercury! Since you may pass these contaminants on, pregnancy and breast-feeding are not the time to eat large, long-lived fish (shark, sword-fish, king mackerel, and tilefish), which contain the highest levels of methyl mercury.

Especially during pregnancy, avoid raw fish and seafood to reduce viral and bacterial infection risks. Enjoy shellfish, canned light tuna, smaller ocean fish, or farm-raised fish, such as catfish or salmon. You can safely eat 12 ounces of these varieties of cooked fish weekly. For locally caught fish, check advisories; limit to 6 ounces if an advisory isn't posted.

See chapter 12 for specific precautions for these foodborne illnesses and for general food safety guidance. Chapter 8 addresses lead poisoning and water.

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