10 food safety tips to protect yourself and your baby during pregnancy

Expecting mothers and unborn babies are at high risk of contracting a foodborne illness

During pregnancy, it’s natural for mom’s immune system to be altered. This helps mom and baby get along with each other.

However, this change often weakens the immune system, putting pregnant women and unborn babies at higher risk of contracting foodborne illnesses, which can lead to serious health problems including miscarriage or premature delivery. Plus, because an unborn baby’s immune system is not developed enough to fight off harmful foodborne microorganisms, the illness can still be passed to the unborn child without mom knowing it, causing harmful side effects or even death to the baby. 

Bentley Danello, RD, LD, education specialist in disease management and registered dietitian with St. Joseph’s/Candler

“It’s really important that you try to prevent getting a foodborne illness while pregnant to avoid harm to you and the baby,” says Bentley Danello, RD, LD, education specialist in disease management and registered dietitian with St. Joseph’s/Candler. “Take the standard precautions as far as cleaning everything before you eat it, washing your vegetables and cooking your meats and fish to the right temperatures, as well as storing things properly.”

See also: Understanding a pregnancy diet and proper weight gain

A foodborne illness is a sickness that occurs when people eat or drink harmful microorganisms (bacteria, parasites, viruses) or chemical contaminants found in some foods or drinking water.

There are three specific foodborne risks expecting mothers need to be aware of. These include:

1. Listeria: a harmful bacterium that can grow at refrigerator temperatures where most other foodborne bacteria do not.

2. Methylmercury: A metal that can be found in certain fish. At high levels it can be harmful to an unborn baby’s or young child’s developing nervous system. Avoid shark, tilefish, king mackerel and swordfish when pregnant.

3. Toxoplasma: A harmful parasite that is found in raw and undercooked meats, unwashed fruits and vegetables, soil, dirty cat-litter boxes and other outdoor places where cat feces can be found.

“You shouldn’t eat sushi when you are pregnant because it’s uncooked,” Danello says. “They also recommend you avoid soft cheeses like feta and brie because it’s not pasteurized. It’s important to make sure everything has been heated or pasteurized. Be careful with deli meats as well. It’s really rare that you would get a foodborne illness from a deli meat, but just in case, heat up the deli meat. Just take extra precautions during your pregnancy.”

Symptoms of foodborne illnesses vary but may include stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, headache or body aches. Whether an expecting mother feels symptoms or not, the illness can still be passed to the unborn child without knowing it.

If you think you are experiencing symptoms of a foodborne illness, call your doctor immediately.

To help prevent foodborne illnesses, Danello shares these 10 food safety tips for pregnant women:

1. Always wash your hands in warm to hot, soapy water before starting to cook.

2. Keep counters and cooking areas clean. Chlorine bleach is safe to use to sanitize counters and sinks as long as you follow the directions on the bottle.

3. Meat, fish and poultry should be kept refrigerated until you are ready to cook it. Fresh meat, fish and poultry should be cooked within 48 hours after purchasing or frozen.

4. Cook meats, fish, and poultry until well done to prevent the risk of listeriosis contamination. Check the inside cooking temperature with a food thermometer in the thickest part of the food. Minimum cooking temperatures are:

  • Ground beef, pork, veal, lamb including hamburgers: 160 degrees
  • Fresh beef, pork, veal, lamb: 145 degrees
  • Poultry whole, ground or stuffed: 165 degrees
  • Fin fish: 145 degrees or until flesh is opaque and separates easily with a fork
  • Shrimp, lobster and crabs: Cook until flesh is pearly and opaque
  • Clams, oysters and mussels: Cook until shells open during cooking
  • Scallops: Cook until flesh is milky white or opaque and firm

5. Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold until you are ready to serve them.

6. After eating, store food promptly, and if possible, place hot food in shallow containers so they will cool down quickly in the refrigerator.

7. Leftovers should be used quickly or frozen. Do not eat something old in your refrigerator.

8. Deli meats and hot dogs should be heated until they are steaming hot.

9. Eggs should be stored inside the refrigerator rather than on the door to keep them at 40 degrees. Eggs should be cooked until the yolk is hard or if scrambled, until no longer runny. Raw eggs should never be eaten.

10. Keep your refrigerator at 35 to 40 degrees and your freezer at 0 degrees. 

  • St. Joseph's Hospital Campus: 11705 Mercy Blvd., Savannah, GA 31419, (p) 912-819-4100
  • Candler Hospital Campus: 5353 Reynolds St., Savannah, GA 31405, (p) 912-819-6000
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St.Joseph's Hospital Campus: 912-819-4100

Candler Hospital Campus: 912-819-6000