The facts on the foodborne illness that’s causing manufacturers to recall popular products, like hummus and ice cream. 

By Brigitt Earley
Updated April 09, 2015
Wrap with vegetables and hummus
Credit: Rita Maas/Getty Images

On the heels of an ongoing Blue Bell ice cream recall, Sabra has voluntarily recalled about 30,000 cases of hummus amidst listeria concerns. Should you be concerned about the safety of the products in your own refrigerator? Here, Dr. Michael P. Angarone, DO, infectious diseases specialist with Northwestern Medicine in Chicago, explains what you need to know about the foodborne illness.

What is Listeria?

Listeria monocytogenes is the main form of listeria that causes foodborne illness, says Angarone. The bacteria, which is typically found in decaying vegetation or from animal sources, can grow on fruits and vegetables washed in contaminated water or animal-based products that have not been properly pasteurized or cooked. Humans obtain the bacteria by ingesting contaminated foods, and will typically show signs of illness within 24-48 hours, says Angarone.

Who is at risk?

In general everyone is at risk for having a diarrheal illness or getting sick from listeria, says Angarone. Certain people—the very young, the elderly, pregnant women, and the immunocompromised—are at a higher risk for developing an illness outside of the gastrointestinal track that can cause serious issues (like meningitis or, in pregnant women, an infection in the placenta), he says.

What are the symptoms?

People infected with listeria may experience fever, diarrhea, vomiting, stiff neck, confusion, weakness, and vomiting.

What should I do if I think I’ve contracted listeria?

With proper hydration, most healthy people will recover without medical attention once the illness has run its course—within approximately 48 hours, says Angarone.

If symptoms are particularly severe or persist for more than a day, call your physician, he says. If you fall into any of the high-risk categories and experience fever and diarrhea, you should call your doctor right away.

What types of food are commonly affected?

The listeria bacteria has been found in unpasteurized dairy products, like raw milk and raw milk cheeses; processed foods, like deli meats, smoked refrigerated seafood, hot dogs, and ready-to-eat spreads; as well as uncooked fruits and vegetables.

How can I protect myself from getting Listeria?

If there’s been any sort of recall, throw the product away, says Angarone. Listeria is invisible to the naked eye—there is no odor or signs of decay associated with the bacteria’s presence, so it’s important to heed recall warnings and take the proper precautions when preparing food. Store food at a safe temperature and cook meats and vegetables thoroughly, says Angarone. And ask your physician for additional food safety guidelines if you fall into a high-risk category. Cleaning kitchen surfaces, utensils, and the inside of the refrigerator thoroughly can also help to minimize the risk of foodborne illness, like listeria.