Food Safety for Moms-to-Be: At-a-Glance

expectant mom and dad.Are you a mother-to-be? Use these simple tips to help protect you and your unborn baby from foodborne illness. Learn what causes foodborne illness and how to prevent it. By following these careful food selection and preparation tips from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), you are giving your baby a healthier start.

The following resource is provided courtesy of the HHS and Food and Drug Administration.


What is foodborne illness?

It's a sickness that occurs when people eat or drink harmful microorganisms (bacteria, parasites, viruses) or chemical contaminants found in some foods or drinking water. Symptoms of foodborne illness vary, but may include:

  • Stomach cramps
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Body aches

It is possible that you may not feel sick at all. But whether you feel sick or not, you can still pass the illness to your unborn child without even knowing it. For both mother and baby, foodborne illness can cause serious health problems – or even death.

Why are pregnant women at higher risk?

  • During pregnancy, your immune system is weakened, which makes it harder for your body to fight off harmful foodborne microorganisms
  • Your unborn baby's immune system is not developed enough to fight off harmful foodborne microorganisms

4 Simple Steps: Tips for a Lifetime

Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill

There are many bacteria that can cause foodborne illness, such as E. coli and Salmonella. Follow these four simple steps to keep yourself and your baby healthy during pregnancy and beyond!


1. Clean: Wash hands and counters often

Germs spread in the kitchen. They can get onto cutting boards, counters, sponges, forks, spoons, and knives. Here's how to fight germs:

  • Wash your hands with hot, soapy water. Do this before touching food. Do it after using the bathroom, changing diapers, or touching pets.
  • Wash your cutting boards, counters, dishes, and utensils. Use hot, soapy water. Do this after working with each food item.
  • Use paper towels to clean up kitchen counters and tables. If you use cloth towels, wash them often in the hot cycle of the washing machine or in hot, soapy water.

2. Separate: Keep raw foods to themselves

Germs can spread from one food product to another.

  • Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and their juices away from other foods.
  • Keep these foods away from each other in your shopping cart and in your fridge.
  • Use a special cutting board for raw meat only.
  • Wash your hands after touching raw meat, poultry, or seafood. Wash cutting boards, dishes, forks, spoons, and knives that touch these food using hot, soapy water.
  • When you use a plate for raw meat, poultry, or seafood, don't put any other food on it until you wash it.

3. Cook: Make sure food is very hot

Foods need to get hot and stay hot when you cook. Heat kills germs.

  • Use a clean cooking thermometer. This handy tool tells you how hot a food gets inside. It helps you to know when foods are cooked all the way. Use it for meat, poultry, and other foods.
  • Cook roasts and steaks to at least 145 degrees F. Whole poultry should reach 180 degrees F.
  • Cook ground beef to at least 160 degrees F.
  • Cook eggs until the yolks and whites are firm. Don't use recipes in which eggs remain raw or are partly cooked.
  • Cooked fish should flake easily with a fork.
  • Be careful if you use a microwave oven. Make sure that the food has no cold spots. Cold spots let germs live. Cover the food and stir it for even cooking. Rotate the dish once or twice while cooking.
  • Bring sauces, soups, and gravies to a boil when you reheat them.
  • Heat leftovers well, too. Leftovers should reach 165 degrees F.

4. Chill: Put food in the fridge right away

  • Set your fridge to 40 degrees F or colder. The cold helps slow the growth of germs in food. The freezer unit should read 0 degrees F. Check the readings once a month with a fridge thermometer.
  • Put all cooked food and leftover food in the fridge or freezer within two hours.
  • Never thaw food by simply taking it out of the fridge!
  • There are three safe ways to thaw food:
    • In the fridge
    • Under cold running water
    • In the microwave
  • Marinate foods in the fridge.
  • Divide large amounts of leftovers. Put them into small, shallow dishes with covers so they can cool quickly in the fridge.
  • Don't pack the fridge too full. The cool air must flow freely to keep food safe.

3 Foodborne Risks for Pregnant Women

As a mom-to-be, there are three specific foodborne risks you need to be aware of. These risks can cause serious illness or death to you or your unborn child. Know what they are and how to avoid them.

Listeria monocytogenes

What is it?

A harmful bacterium that can grow at refrigerator temperatures where most other foodborne bacteria do not. It causes an illness called listeriosis.

Where is it found?

Refrigerated, ready-to-eat foods and unpasteurized milk and milk products.

How to Prevent It

  • Do not eat hot dogs and luncheon meats unless they're reheated until steaming hot.
  • Do not eat soft cheeses unless they're labeled as made with pasteurized milk. Check the label. Cheeses to avoid include:
    • Feta
    • Brie
    • Camembert
    • Blue-veined cheeses like bleu cheese and Roquefort
    • Queso blanco
    • Queso fresco
    • Panela
  • Do not eat refrigerated pâtés or meat spreads.
  • Do not eat refrigerated smoked seafood unless it's in a cooked dish, such as a casserole. Refrigerated smoked seafood may include:
    • Salmon
    • Trout
    • Whitefish
    • Cod
    • Tuna
    • Mackerel

    These types of fish are found in the refrigerator section or sold at deli counters and are most often labeled as:

    • Nova-style
    • Lox
    • Kippered
    • Smoked
    • Jerky
  • Do not drink raw (unpasteurized) milk or eat foods that contain unpasteurized milk.

Methylmercury

What is it?

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.

Where is it found?

Large, long-lived fish, such as:

  • Shark
  • Tilefish
  • King mackerel
  • Swordfish

How to Prevent It

  • Don't eat shark, tilefish, king mackerel, or swordfish. These fish can contain high levels of methylmercury.
  • It's okay to eat other cooked fish and seafood, as long as a variety of other kinds are selected during pregnancy or while a woman is trying to become pregnant. You can eat up to 12 ounces a week (two average meals) of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.
    • Five of the most commonly eaten fish that are low in mercury are:
      • Shrimp
      • Canned light tuna
      • Salmon
      • Pollock
      • Catfish
  • Another commonly eaten fish, albacore ("white") tuna has more mercury than canned light tuna. So, when choosing your two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) of albacore tuna per week.

Toxoplasma gondii

What is it?

A harmful parasite. It causes an illness called toxoplasmosis, which can be difficult to detect.

Where is it found?

Raw and undercooked meat; unwashed fruits and vegetables; soil; dirty cat-litter boxes; and outdoor places where cat feces can be found.

How to Prevent It

  • If possible, have someone else change the litter box.
    If you have to clean it, wash your hands with soap and warm water afterwards.
  • Wear gloves when gardening or handling sand from a sandbox.
  • Don't get a new cat while pregnant.
  • Cook meat thoroughly. See the Apply the Heat [PDF, 160KB] chart for the proper temperatures.

Resources

See your doctor or health-care provider if you have questions about foodborne illness. You also can explore the resources below for more information.

Food Safety for Moms-to-Be: At-a-Glance. HHS/FDA. 2014. English.

Last Reviewed: June 2015

Last Updated: June 25, 2015