Food Safety during Pregnancy

JanelMS, RD, LDN, CBS

Read time: 5 minutes

What to know about practicing food safety and preventing foodborne illness while pregnant:

  • Understand the dangers of foodborne illness and why pregnant women are at increased risk

  • Recognize which foods pose increased risk of foodborne illness

  • Learn how to properly handle foods to minimize risk

  • Recognize signs and symptoms of foodborne illness

Practicing good food safety and food prep hygiene is especially important in pregnancy to avoid serious complications for you and your baby. Pregnant women are particularly susceptible to foodborne illnesses due to the unique immunological condition created by pregnancy.1 While these changes are important, it does put both you and your baby at higher risk for food born illnesses.2

What is foodborne illness?

Foodborne illness, also known as food poisoning or foodborne infection, occurs when a person gets sick by consuming foods or beverages contaminated with microbes, pathogens, chemicals, or other harmful substances.3

The most common foodborne illnesses in the United States are norovirus, salmonella, clostridium perfringens, campylobacter, and staphylococcus aureus (staph).5 Other germs that may cause serious illness include clostridium botulinum (botulism), listeria, E.coli, and vibrio.5

Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, blood or mucus in stool, abdominal pain and cramping, or mild flu-like symptoms like fever, body aches, and headache.3,4 These symptoms can range in severity from non-existent to relatively mild discomfort to a very serious, life-threatening illness.

Which foods may cause foodborne illness?

There is a wide spectrum of foods that may carry the harmful germs that cause foodborne illnesses. But some pose a bigger threat than others:

  • Raw or undercooked foods, particularly meat, poultry, seafood, shellfish, and eggs

  • Fruits and vegetables that have not been washed properly or that touched other foods with harmful germs may be contaminated

  • Unpasteurized / raw milk, cheese, and other milk products

  • Raw or undercooked sprouts

  • Raw / uncooked flour (including raw dough)15,16,17

How do I know if a food is spoiled?

Both a food’s appearance as well as its packaging may help you tell if the food is spoiled or contaminated.

Spoiled foods may appear:

  • Moldy, wilted, wrinkly

  • Have a foul or unpleasant smell

  • May have changes in color

  • Often taste different or bad6

Spoiled canned foods (home-canned and store-bought) may appear:

  • The can or container may be swollen/bulging or leaking

  • The container may be damaged or cracked

  • The container may squirt liquid when opened

  • The food inside smells bad, is moldy, is broken down, or is discolored7

Canned foods with the above signs may contain botulism, a rare but very serious foodborne illness. It’s uncommon, though not unheard of, for store-bought canned foods to be contaminated; however, home-canned foods have a much higher risk of botulism.7

Low acid foods are most common source of botulism, including meats, fish, asparagus, green beans, beans, beets, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and figs.7

Concerned about which foods you can eat during pregnancy and which to avoid? Reach out to our team of registered dietitians and lactation consultants for free! They’re here to help on our free to live chat from Monday – Friday 8am-6pm (ET), and Saturday – Sunday 8am-2pm (ET). Chat Now!

Helping prevent foodborne illness

Many times, contaminated foods show no obvious signs of the contamination, but you can still prevent foodborne illness by choosing, handling, washing, cooking, and storing foods properly.8

And avoid cross-contamination, which occurs when bacteria are spread from one food product to another. This is especially common when handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs.8 The key is to keep these foods, and their juices, away from ready-to-eat foods or produce both in the refrigerator as well as during food prep.8

Read about: Which Nutrients Do I Need During Pregnancy?

Food safety tips to help prevent foodborne illness during pregnancy

Wash your hands, cutting boards, foods, and other cooking surfaces often

Wash your hands in warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food, using the bathroom, changing diapers, or handling pets.10

Wash all cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and countertops with hot soapy water between the preparation of raw meat, poultry, and seafood products and the preparation of any other food that will not be cooked.10 If you are able, use different cutting boards for each type of food.

As an added precaution, sanitize cutting boards and countertops by rinsing them in a solution made of one tablespoon of unscented liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water, or, as an alternative, you may run the cutting boards through your dishwasher.9

When cleaning your kitchen counters, use paper towels. If you prefer cloth dishtowels or microfiber towels, be sure to swap them out every day and wash the used ones in the hot cycle of the washing machine.

Sanitize your sponges after each washing session by placing the damp sponge in the microwave for 2 minutes and replace them with new ones regularly.18

And don’t forget to wash your foods! Rinse all produce by rubbing firm-skin fruits and vegetables under running tap water, including those with skins and rinds that are not eaten.10,11 Be especially vigilant with melons, which you should scrub before cutting with a plastic brush you can then put in the dishwasher. When cooking with canned goods, always clean the lids before opening.

Learn about: How Much Should I Eat While Pregnant?

However, do not wash meats, poultry of eggs. This may spread their germs as the juices and water splashes in the sink and on the counter.10

Keep foods separate to avoid cross-contamination

Separate raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from other foods in your grocery shopping cart, grocery bags, and in your refrigerator. Once home, wrap raw meat, poultry and seafood in plastic wrap or bags and place inside a deep dish or container on the lowest shelf of the fridge (so they won’t drip on the other food).10

No need to rinse raw meat, poultry, eggs, or fish as this will only spread the harmful microbes.10 But definitely wash any utensils, plates, or cutting boards used during the handling of raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs before re-using to avoid cross-contamination.

Cook food to safe internal temperatures

If you’re not sure whether a food is fully cooked, use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of foods like meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs. Check the internal temperature in several places, as the color of the food is not always a reliable indicator of safety or doneness.

Here’s a cheat sheet on safe food temperatures:

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Sources 12,13

When cooking in a microwave oven, be sure to cover your food, stir, and rotate for even cooking.13 If your microwave does not have a turntable, rotate the dish by hand once or twice during cooking.

Refrigerate and store food promptly

Keeping foods properly chilled is one of the most effective ways to prevent foodborne illness. This is because cold temperatures slow the growth of harmful bacteria. Make sure your refrigerator is set to 40 ºF or below and your freezer is set to 0 ºF or below.10

To keep foods at a safe temperature, follow these guidelines:

  • Refrigerate or freeze milk, meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, fruits, vegetables, and other perishables within 2 hours of cooking or purchasing

  • Refrigerate these items within 1 hour if the temperature outside is above 90 ºF

  • You can divide larger amounts of food into shallow containers for quicker cooling in the fridge

  • Throw out foods that have been without refrigeration for longer than 2 hours

  • Marinate foods in the refrigerator, not on the counter10

If you’re traveling or away from home, use a cooler with ice packs to safely transport meals and snacks.

When thawing food from the freezer, do so in the fridge, in cold running water, or in the microwave but not on the countertop at room temperature. Cook your food immediately once thawed.

During pregnancy, avoid high risk foods and ingredients

Avoid raw or undercooked eggs, poultry, meat and seafood (like carpaccio, tartare, ceviche, raw sushi and sashimi and anything cooked to ‘rare’ or ‘medium rare’);

  • Anything unpasteurized

  • Processed meats (like deli meats, charcuterie and hot dogs, unless served steaming hot)

  • High mercury seafood (like tuna, shark, king mackerel and swordfish)

  • Pâté, meat spreads, smoked seafood and mayonnaise-based salads made in a store (like egg salad, tuna salad, chicken salad or seafood salad)

  • Soft-serve ice cream and frozen yogurt (while the dairy used in these frozen desserts is usually pasteurized, the dispensers can be breeding grounds for harmful bacteria, like Listeria, if improperly or infrequently cleaned)

  • Raw sprouts (like alfalfa, clover, radish, and mung bean)

  • Any food that by date, smell, or appearance is questionable (when in doubt, throw it out!)2,14

Read more:

Can I have Caffeine while Pregnant and Breastfeeding?

Contact your health care provider if you have any suspicious symptoms

If you develop signs of a foodborne illness such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or fever after consuming questionable foods or believe you have eaten a food that appears on a recall list or which has made someone else sick, contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible. In certain cases, like with Listeria, antibiotics can be given to protect you and your baby.

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For more on this topic, check out the following articles:

What’s the Deal with Kombucha?

Juicing and Food Safety

Healthy Snack Ideas during Pregnancy

Healthy Weight Gain in Pregnancy and Why It’s Good

Meal Plan to Help Manage Morning Sickness

Strategies for Managing Morning Sickness

Foodborne illness, also known as food poisoning, foodborne disease, or foodborne infection, occurs when a person gets sick by consuming foods or beverages contaminated with microbes, pathogens, chemicals or other harmful substances. The most common foodborne illnesses in the United States are E. coli, salmonella, botulinum, Listeria and toxoplasmosis. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, blood or mucus in stool, abdominal pain and cramping, or mild flu-like symptoms like fever, body aches and headache. These symptoms can range in severity from non-existent to relatively mild discomfort to very serious, life-threatening illness.

Protect yourself against foodborne illness by avoiding contaminated foods, such as those that appear moldy, wilted, wrinkly or have a foul smell. Other signs of contamination include canned foods that are leaking, bulging or swollen, look damaged or cracked, seem abnormal in appearance or squirt liquid or foam when opened. These could be signs of a rare but deadly toxin called botulinum that can affect your nerves, paralyze you and possibly cause death.

Many times, contaminated foods offer no obvious signs of the contamination, but you can still prevent foodborne illness by choosing, handling, washing, cooking and storing foods properly. And avoid cross-contamination which occurs when bacteria are spread from one food product to another, especially common when handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs. The key is to keep these foods – and their juices – away from ready-to-eat foods or produce.

What to Do

Wash your hands and cooking surfaces often

Wash your hands in warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food, using the bathroom, changing diapers or handling pets. Wash all cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and countertops with hot soapy water between the preparation of raw meat, poultry, and seafood products and the preparation of any other food that will not be cooked. As an added precaution, sanitize cutting boards and countertops by rinsing them in a solution made of one tablespoon of unscented liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water, or, as an alternative, you may run the cutting boards through your dishwasher.

When cleaning your kitchen counters, use paper towels. If you prefer cloth dishtowels or microfiber towels, be sure to swap them out every day and wash the used ones in the hot cycle of the washing machine. Sanitize your sponges after each washing session by placing the damp sponge in the microwave for 2 minutes (this will kill 99% of bacteria, yeasts and molds), and replace them with new ones regularly.

And don’t forget to wash your foods! Rinse all produce by rubbing firm-skin fruits and vegetables under running tap water, including those with skins and rinds that are not eaten. Be especially vigilant with melons, which you should scrub before cutting with a plastic brush you can then put in the dishwasher. When cooking with canned goods, always clean the lids before opening.

Keep foods separate to avoid cross-contamination

Separate raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from other foods in your grocery shopping cart, grocery bags, and in your refrigerator. Once home, wrap raw meat, poultry and seafood in plastic wrap or bags and place inside a deep dish or container on the lowest shelf of the fridge (so they won’t drip on the other food).

No need to rinse raw meat, poultry or fish as this will only spread the microbes. But definitely wash any utensils, plates, or cutting boards used during the handling of raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs before re-using to avoid cross-contamination. And keep a separate cutting board for raw animal products, ideally one you can run through the dishwasher.

Cook food to safe internal temperatures

If you’re not sure whether a food is fully cooked, use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of foods like meat, poultry, seafood and eggs. Check the internal temperature in several places, as the color of the food is not always a reliable indicator of safety or doneness.

Here’s a cheat sheet on safe food temperatures:

Food item Safe minimum cooking temperature (remember to always allow standing time, which completes the cooking, before checking the internal temperature with a food thermometer)
Ground beef 160 ºF
Poultry and Ground poultry 165 ºF
Seafood 145 ºF (cook shrimp, lobster and crab until the shells turn red and the flesh is pearly opaque; cook clams, mussels and oysters until the shells open, discarding any shells that do not open)
Eggs 160 ºF (cook until the yolks and whites are firm)
Beef

Lamb

Pork

Veal

Roasts and chops

145 ºF (and rest for 3 minutes after removing from the heat source)
Sauce

Soup

Gravy

165 ºF
Hot dogs

Luncheon meats

Bologna

Deli meats

165 ºF or until steaming hot
Leftovers 165 ºF

When cooking in a microwave oven, be sure to cover your food, stir and rotate for even cooking. If your microwave does not have a turntable, rotate the dish by hand once or twice during cooking.

Refrigerate and store food promptly

Keeping foods properly chilled is one of the most effective ways to prevent foodborne illness because cold temperatures slow the growth of harmful bacteria. Make sure your refrigerator is set to 40 ºF or below and your freezer is set to 0 ºF or below.

Refrigerate or freeze meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, and other perishables within 2 hours of cooking or purchasing. Refrigerate these items within 1 hour if the temperature outside is above 90 ºF. You can divide larger amounts of food into shallow containers for quicker cooling in the fridge.

If you’re traveling or away from home, use a cooler with ice packs to safely transport meals and snacks.

When thawing food from the freezer, do so in the fridge, in cold running water, or in the microwave but not on the countertop at room temperature. Cook your food immediately once thawed.

Avoid high risk foods and ingredients for foodborne illness:

  • Avoid raw or undercooked eggs, poultry, meat and seafood (like carpaccio, tartare, ceviche, raw sushi and sashimi and anything cooked to ‘rare’ or ‘medium rare’);
  • Anything unpasteurized;
  • Unwashed fruits and vegetables;
  • Processed meats (like deli meats, charcuterie and hot dogs, unless served steaming hot);
  • High mercury seafood (like tuna, shark, king mackerel and swordfish);
  • Pâté, meat spreads, smoked seafood and mayonnaise-based salads made in a store (like egg salad, tuna salad, chicken salad or seafood salad);
  • Soft-serve ice cream and frozen yogurt (while the dairy used in these frozen desserts is usually pasteurized, the dispensers can be breeding grounds for harmful bacteria, like Listeria, if improperly or infrequently cleaned);
  • Raw sprouts (like alfalfa, clover, radish and mung bean);
  • Any food that by date, smell or appearance is questionable (when in doubt, throw it out!);
  • Any canned food that is leaking, bulging, swollen, looks damaged or cracked, seems abnormal in appearance, squirts liquid or foam when opened or with contents that are discolored, moldy or smelly.

Contact your health care provider if you have any suspicious symptoms

If you develop signs of a foodborne illness such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or fever after consuming questionable foods or believe you have eaten a food that appears on a recall list or which has made someone else sick, contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible. In certain cases, like with Listeria, antibiotics can be given to protect you and your baby.