This might make you a bit chicken about eating pre-cooked chicken.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a warning about a Listeria outbreak that so far has left at least three people hospitalized and one person dead. Since Listeria has been detected in samples of precooked chicken products, the CDC is now saying that “people at higher risk for severe Listeria illness and facilities caring for them should take extra precautions when eating or serving precooked chicken.”
Who’s at higher risk for more severe illness? Well, those who are pregnant, are 65 years or older, or have weakened immune systems. Newborns are at greater risk as well. So if you are a newborn ordering food at a fast food restaurant or supermarket, you may want to avoid the chicken salad or the salad with chicken strips. According to the CDC, out of an estimated 1,600 people who get sick from Listeria each year, approximately 260 die.
What’s the Listeria about this bacteria? Well, I’ve covered Listeria monocytogenes multiple times for Forbes. The years 2019 and 2020 alone had a poop load of such listerosis cases, including outbreaks linked to deli meats, lemons, limes, and potatoes, and, gasp, avocados.
Speaking of poop, swallowing some Listeria most often leads to a bout of diarrhea, fever, and potentially headaches, nausea, vomiting, muscle pain, or joint pain. Symptoms typically begin within 24 hours of swallowing the bacteria and can last up to five days. While it’s probably rare for anyone to say, “cool, diarrhea is awesome,” at least this milder form of illness tends to completely resolve eventually with no long-term effects.
The greater concern, though, is that some will end up developing invasive listeriosis. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, invasive means “involving entry into the living body.” Frequently, “invasive” is not a positive term. For example, if someone were to ask, “would you like to have this invasive hot dog,” your answer would typically be no.
Invasive listeriosis occurs when the bacteria gets past your intestines into your bloodstream and other parts of your body like your central nervous system. Symptoms can take longer to develop, frequently one to four weeks after ingesting the bacteria, and can consist of neurological symptoms such as a severe headache, stiff neck, confusion, and even convulsions one to four weeks after ingesting the bacteria. Invasive listeriosis is a much more serious condition with a 20 to 30% risk of death. If you are pregnant, you can also have a miscarriage, a premature delivery, or other pregnancy complications. Your newborn may not be so happy with you either, as the newborn can have a life-threatening infection.
The CDC has not yet identified a particular farm, manufacturer, or seller linked to the contaminated chicken. Cases have occurred in Texas and Delaware. So until further notice about a more specific chicken source, be careful with pre-cooked chicken in general. Pre-cooked chicken tends to be in chicken salads or salads with chicken such as the kind that you may find at salad bars. Unless you can re-heat the pre-cooked chicken to an internal temperature high enough to kill Listeria (at least 165°F), it’s a good idea to avoid any dishes with such chicken for now.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you start eating raw chicken instead of pre-cooked chicken. Eating raw chicken can bring a cluck-load of other risks. Plus, raw chicken Caesar salad leaves much to be desired. If you must get your fill of chicken, make sure that it is cooked or heated at least 165°F in front of you and that you eat it soon afterwards. In the meantime, wait until the ongoing investigation into the chicken source crosses the road and provides more information.