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News Release

   PO 360
   Trenton, NJ 08625-0360

   For Release:
  October 7, 2002


Clifton R. Lacy, M.D.

For Further Information Contact:
Donna Leusner or Marilyn Riley
(609) 984-7160

Commissioner Warns of Listeria Risk
from Consuming Sliced Turkey Deli Meat

State Health and Senior Services Commissioner Clifton R. Lacy, M.D. today urged pregnant women, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems to avoid sliced turkey deli meat or to heat it thoroughly before eating. Federal officials have identified turkey deli meat as the leading suspect food in an outbreak of listeriosis in seven states.

Since late June, 21 New Jersey residents have been infected with Listeria monocytogenes - a bacterium that can contaminate food products - and seven infected people have died. So far, laboratory testing has shown that four of the 21 New Jersey patients were infected with the same strain of Listeria that is causing the outbreak in the Northeast. Cultures show that 10 of the patients are not linked to the outbreak. Four patient samples remain to be tested at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and samples are not available for the remaining patients.

"Listeriosis is a very serious food borne illness that is particularly dangerous for pregnant women, newborns, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems," Dr. Lacy said. "In fact, three New Jerseyans infected with the outbreak strain were pregnant women and the fourth was an infant born to one of the women. This underscores the need for people at increased risked to take the appropriate precautions to avoid infection.

"Among the infected adults who died, most were over age 65 and all had underlying medical conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, chronic renal failure and sickle cell anemia," the Commissioner added.

Last Friday, the CDC identified sliced turkey deli meat as the leading suspect food in the outbreak. CDC, state and local health officials are continuing their multi-state investigation to identify the brand or brands of turkey involved and the origin of the product.

Meanwhile, 40 people with the outbreak strain of Listeria have been identified in Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut and Michigan, as well as in New Jersey. All were hospitalized, seven died and three pregnant women had miscarriages or stillbirths.

New Jersey's seven deaths occurred in residents of Bergen (two deaths), Burlington, Mercer, Gloucester, Essex and Cumberland counties. They ranged in age from 56 to 82, and all had underlying medical problems.

The infection is acquired through eating contaminated food products. The Listeria bacterium is found in soil and water, and in animals and animal feed. Outbreaks of the disease have been associated with consumption of unpasteurized (raw) milk, soft cheeses, contaminated vegetables and ready-to-eat meats.

The disease is not spread person-to-person. Symptoms include fever, muscle aches, and sometimes nausea or diarrhea. If the infection involves the nervous system, it can cause meningitis and/or encephalitis, which are characterized by headache, stiff neck and confusion or convulsions.

New Jersey usually records between 20 and 30 cases of listeriosis annually. These cases occur sporadically, which means they are not associated with any outbreak.

"It is likely that most of the 21 cases in our state will turn out to be sporadic cases not linked to the current suspect food. This means that it is important for people - especially those at high risk -- to take additional precautions to prevent infection," added Dr. Eddy Bresnitz, state epidemiologist and assistant commissioner.

This includes washing and cooking food thoroughly, keeping uncooked meats separate from ready-to-eat foods, avoiding raw milk, and thoroughly washing surfaces and utensils used to prepare raw foods,'' he explained.

In addition to avoiding or heating sliced turkey deli meat, people at high risk may want to take the following additional precautions:

  • Avoid soft cheeses such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined and Mexican-style cheeses.
  • Cook leftover or ready-to-eat foods such as hot dogs until steaming hot.
  • Avoid or thoroughly heat other sliced deli meats before eating.

Additional information about listeriosis may be obtained at the CDC website at

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Department of Health and Senior Services
P. O. Box 360
Trenton, NJ 08625-0360

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