By now, you've probably heard about the recent food recalls made by Blue BellEggoNestle and most recently Trader Joe's. Each of these recalls were made in response to possible contamination with listeria. I'm here to explain to you why it's so important to listen to these recalls and what can happen if you don't.

What is listeria?

milk, sweet, cream, dairy product, chocolate, ice
Agnes Chen

The listeria that we most commonly hear about is a bacteria called listeria monocytogenes. It's a foodborne pathogen that causes the infection known as listeriosis. In the United States, listeria causes approximately 1,600 illnesses and 260 deaths each year. These numbers are alarming, but they aren't even the worst news. It's reported that 20 to 30 percent of food borne listeriosis infections in high-risk individuals could be fatal.

Listeria most commonly attacks the central nervous system. This leads to the following symptoms: fever, muscle aches, headache, stiff neck, dizziness, confusion, and loss of balance.

How did it affect me?

bread, hummus, vegetable
Christin Urso

Listeria mainly affects the elderly, pregnant women, and people with a weakened immune system. Although rare, it can affect other individuals as well, which is what happened to me. Back in the spring of 2015, I was obsessed with Sabra hummus. So much so, that I would go through a container a week (sometimes two). Around late March, I started to feel weak and exhausted all the time.

My body ached constantly, which made the simplest of my daily activities difficult. My neck was always stiff and that contributed to many painful headaches. I even started to fall behind in my classes because I couldn't understand the material I had previously learned. On one terrible day as I was walking to class, I completely lost my lunch right on the sidewalk (like every other day, I had eaten hummus for lunch).

I couldn't look at hummus the same way after that day, and stopped my Sabra addiction cold turkey. I was absolutely exhausted from everything that my body was going through. Like every other dependent college kid, I called my mom and explained everything that had happened. After I talked her out of driving 500 miles on a whim to take care of me, she insisted I see a doctor to find out what was going on.

cream, dairy product, milk, sweet, coffee
Annie Eng

Throughout the period of about two weeks, I had seen three different doctors. Each doctor had a different reason for what was causing all my symptoms. Amongst the diagnoses that I was given were sinus infection and seasonal allergies. I was given an antibiotic for the sinus infection and sent on my way.

I've always trusted doctors' opinions, but I couldn't help but get more frustrated with every visit. Nothing they attributed my symptoms to seemed to line up with how terrible I felt. I've had my fair share of sinus infections and I've never suffered from more than mild seasonal allergies. In addition, these diagnoses didn't give me an answer for several of my symptoms, like muscle aches and difficulty focusing on my schoolwork.

I finally started to feel better about a week after taking the antibiotic. To put the timeline into perspective, I had been feeling ill for about a month. I was finally feeling more like my healthy self when I came home one day to my roommate freaking out while holding a container of Sabra hummus.

sweet, candy
Sterling Martin

I had no idea what was going on. She was going off about how she had eaten half of the container when she heard the news that Sabra had recalled their hummus for listeria contaminations. I had no idea what listeria was at the time, but I decided to look at the lot number on the container that I had bought before I quit eating it. Sure enough, my lot number matched the ones that were being recalled.

I quickly looked up the symptoms of listeriosis and everything matched my symptoms. I called my doctor to explain that I had eaten two to three tubs of contaminated hummus and asked if that could have been the cause of my illness. My doctor agreed that my symptoms aligned with those due to a listeria infection, likely because of the amount of contaminated hummus I had consumed.

He also went on to explain that because the listeria recall was announced after my exposure and visits, he had not even thought about that possibility. In addition, I didn't fit the typical profile of an at-risk individual. Nonetheless, the antibiotic that I had been given for a "sinus infection" had likely killed off the listeria bacteria.

You're probably wondering why I'm even bringing this up if it happened almost two years ago. The truth is that my listeria infection has had lasting impacts on my life. I didn't do as well in school that semester as I could have and it took my body months to recover. It was exhausting being sick and trying to maintain a job, school, and friends.

I haven't touched Sabra hummus since that recall. And ever since, I have been very cautious with what I eat and I pay close attention to recalls in the news.

How can we prevent infection?

meat, fish, pork, beef, ham, fillet, seafood
Jocelyn Hsu

On the consumer side, the easiest way to prevent infection is to listen to recalls and practice safe handling, cooking, and consumption of food. Companies have been getting better at identifying contaminations before any illness cases are recorded. It's also important to check to make sure refrigerators and freezers are set to their appropriate safe temperatures. This ensures that foods are kept at safe cooling levels to prevent the growth of listeria.

Pay attention to the use-by dates on precooked or ready-to-eat foods. And don't leave them in the fridge past that date. By being smart with our food and listening to recalls, we can cut down on the spread of listeria and the number of infections.