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Listeria Outbreak Down Under: Hazard or Hype?

Last month, the number of Listeriosis incidents was more than double its usual number for New South Wales Australians. A typical number of Listeria cases per month would be about three. Compared to December’s eight documented cases and three more under investigation, medical and food-service professionals are searching for answers. The outbreak prompted a cheese recall for Jindi or Wattle Valley soft cheeses and residents of the affected areas are being asked to check the “best before” dates before eating any of these products. The cheeses being recalled have a “best before” date of December 21, 2012. Consumers are being urged to discard their purchase or return it unopened for a full refund of the product.

For some, this outbreak signals much concern and worry over the safety of our food products, while others regard it as a nuisance. While companies must react swiftly to such a finding among their product, the mixed reactions of a consumer public draw attention to the nature of our concern. Some are hesitant to call this an outbreak while others are planning to avoid soft cheeses and other suspect products for the foreseeable future. It begs the question of what to do with such mixed reviews.

The Basics on Listeriosis

Listeriosis monocytogenes is a bacteria that makes its way into our ready-to-eat foods and is most harmful to pregnant women and persons with weakened immune systems. Foods such as pre-made salads, soft cheeses and unpasteurized milk are common culprits of the bacteria. Most people who ingest the listeria bacteria will find themselves suffering mild symptoms and walk away from the ordeal without much ado. Those with compromised immune systems, however, are likely to end up in the hospital. The worst cases of Listeriosis monocytogenes can result in death. This is typically among elderly. Pregnant women can miscarry or have stillborn children. The early signs of listeria infection include headache, fever, tiredness and body aches. Anyone with a weakened immune system experiencing these symptoms and having ingested a suspect product is encouraged to seek medical attention. Our research at Help Me Choose has revealed that treatments for listeria are covered by certain types of private health insurance, so the majority of people who encounter this strain of bacteria will walk away relatively unscathed. The threat of death is, however, a stark reminder of the potential seriousness of this type of infection.

Those Who Heed the Caution

The outbreak is being heeded by a large percentage of the population, but there is more than meets the eye. Prepackaged meats, soft cheeses, premade salads and unpasteurized milk are avoided generally among pregnant women because of the known risks, but the population does not generally avoid these foods.

The findings of this outbreak will find many people avoiding the culprit foods for a long time. The question that arises is whether the concern is worth the hype.

The Ignorers of Hype

There are those who would prefer to risk an infection of Listeria from unpasteurized milk than accept food that is processed beyond recognition. Food that is processed or mass-produced is beginning to be regarded with more concern than the potential risks of avoiding processing. This is the era of a complete disconnection between us and our food sources and some people are turning their ear to a different sort of caution.

The entire situation does begin to raise questions about how food is handled and what that means for us. Many people are beginning to point fingers at the way food is processed as a culprit for the bacteria plaguing grocery store shelves.

While the figures of people impacted by the Listeriosis outbreak are significantly different from normal numbers, the percentage of population impacted is so minimal, many people fail to see a reason for concern.