By Lindsey Morse, MS, CGC, MotherToBaby New York
It’s officially summer! Time for pool parties, cook-outs, and beach-side picnics. Bring on the hamburgers and hotdogs, potato and pasta salads, fish fry, and barbecue chicken.
You may be wondering if it is safe to eat that food that has been sitting in the sun? Also, didn’t I hear somewhere that pregnant women shouldn’t eat fish or undercooked meat during pregnancy? Is it safe to swim in lake water or at the beach? How can I protect my baby during my pregnancy while still enjoying summertime fun and food with my family and friends?
Easy! There are just a few simple tips to keep in mind.
Tip 1 – Thoroughly cook all meat and seafood
Food safety is important whether you are pregnant or not. But some food-borne illnesses can be more of a concern if you are pregnant. Safe handling, preparation, and storage of foods reduces the chance that you could be exposed to little organisms that could make you feel bad in a big way.
One of the most common questions about food during pregnancy is about eating meat, especially deli sandwich meat, or undercooked meat (like that medium-rare steak). There are all these warnings about what to eat and what not to eat. So, how do you know what is a concern and what can you do about it?
Well, there are several microorganisms (bacteria and parasites) that can be found in meat before it’s cooked, if it’s only partially cooked, or if it has been cooked and then frozen or refrigerated to be eaten later. These include things like Escherichia coli (E. coli), Salmonella, Listeria, and Vibrio. (See MotherToBaby.org for more info in our fact sheets.) Some types, or strains, of these microorganisms are not harmful and are actually good for us, helping with digestion for example. But others can make you sick causing stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, joint and muscle pain, and fever. Symptoms may last only a few hours with some infections or up to a week with others. In women who are pregnant, exposure to some microorganisms might make you sick, but are unlikely to directly affect the baby’s development. Other microorganisms may increase the chance for miscarriage or other pregnancy complications, like early delivery.
You may have heard that women who are pregnant should not clean out their cat’s litter box due to a risk of toxoplasmosis, but did you know that this same parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, is also found in undercooked meats? When moms are infected during pregnancy, there is a chance for congenital toxoplasmosis in their babies. This can cause liver, spleen, heart, brain, and eye problems including blindness, deafness, seizures, and cognitive delays. This is usually only a risk with a new infection during pregnancy, not if you have had toxoplasmosis in the past.
Cooking meat and seafood until the center reaches a safe minimum temperature or reheating meat destroys the bacteria or parasite, thereby preventing illness. While great chefs will tell you all sorts of tips and tricks for determining how done your steak is, invest in a meat thermometer! They are easy to find in most grocery stores and really take the guess work out of not only your next backyard party but also your weeknight dinners. Below is a table with the recommended temperatures for different meats. You can find our fact sheet on meat and seafood at https://mothertobaby.org/fact-sheets/eating-raw-undercooked-or-cold-meats-and-seafood/.
|Meat/Seafood||Safe Minimum Internal Temperature|
|Fish and Shellfish||145 °F (63°C)|
|Pork||145 °F (63°C)|
|Beef (steaks, chops, and roasts)||145 °F (63°C)|
|Beef and Pork (ground)||160 °F (71°C)|
|Wild game||165 °F (74°C)|
|Poultry||165 °F (74°C)|
|Cold lunchmeat and deli meat||Cook until steaming|
Tip 2 – Safe food preparation and handling are also important
Some of the same bacteria and parasites can also be found on fruits and vegetables, or in unpasteurized dairy products like milk, cheese, and eggs. Washing your fruits and vegetables thoroughly and eating only pasteurized dairy products are the best ways to prevent exposure. And don’t forget to wash your hands, cutting boards, and utensils thoroughly after handling uncooked meat, as well as unwashed fruits and veggies to avoid contaminating other foods.
Oh, and that grilled chicken that has been sitting in the sun for three hours – forget it! Once cooked, meat and seafood should be eaten right away. Leftovers of all types (including those pasta and potato salads, and anything with mayo or salad dressings) should be refrigerated at or below 40o F (4oC) as soon as possible and then meats thoroughly reheated before they are eaten.
Tip 3 – It is good to eat fish during pregnancy, but some are better than others
Another frequent question is about eating fish during pregnancy. Many fish contain a substance called methylmercury. Some fish have higher levels of this type of mercury than other types of fish – this usually depends upon the size of the fish, how long it lives, and where it lives prior to making it to your table.
But fish and seafood are actually a good source of protein and other vitamins that are good not only for adults but also for developing babies. The key is to eat the right types of fish and seafood in the right amounts. See our fact sheet at https://mothertobaby.org/fact-sheets/methylmercury-pregnancy/pdf/ for more information. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also has a quick guide which can be helpful to determine which are the best options for you: https://www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/UCM536321.pdf%20
Tip 4 – Do some research before going swimming
Some of the bacteria mentioned earlier in this blog can be found in water, like your local lake or warm coastal waters. In addition to bacteria, lakes and rivers can contain things like protozoa and worms which cause diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever. Besides eating contaminated food, these organisms can get into your body if you swim in infected water especially when you have an open wound, even a small scrape, if you swallow any water, or if water goes up your nose. Risks are often highest during and after a storm as this increases rain water runoff and pollution from the surrounding area.
There also can be certain types of algae in the water that may be harmful in high amounts. I recently received a call from a pregnant mom on vacation in Florida concerned about a red tide warning in her area. Red tides are caused by a high concentration of algae (an algal bloom) and happen mainly in Florida but can occur along the Gulf Coast or as far north as Delaware. Many algal blooms are not harmful, but others can cause low oxygen levels in the water harming marine animals and causing a build-up of toxins (called brevotoxins) in the water.
Pay attention to the warnings in your area because it is not a good idea to swim in areas where you know that there is an algal bloom or high bacteria counts, particularly if you have an open wound. Check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s website https://www.epa.gov/beaches to find info about freshwater and saltwater beaches in your area. Also, look around the area that you plan to swim for obvious signs of pollution like a neighboring farm, trash in the water, or even dead fish floating in the water.
It is also important not to eat locally, recreationally caught shellfish during a red tide – shellfish in grocery stores and restaurants are regulated and are not caught during an algae bloom so they aren’t contaminated but recreationally harvested shellfish could be. The brevetoxins which are found in red-tides are not destroyed by cooking.
Bottomline, planning is key! While often the risks associated with food-borne illnesses are bigger for you than for your baby, a few simple precautions can help you have a healthy pregnancy and still enjoy your favorite foods and summertime activities. Just remember to pick up a meat thermometer, give those veggies a good wash before you make that salad, avoid foods that have been sitting out in the sun, and know your lakes and beaches!
Lindsey Morse, MS, CGC, is a senior genetic counselor for Ferre Genetics, a program of the Ferre Institute based in Binghamton NY. Lindsey is also a teratogen information specialist with Pregnancy Risk Network, also known as MotherToBaby New York, and has served as co-director of the program since 2015. Lindsey counsels patients in all areas of genetics from prenatal to adult genetics. She also lectures on a variety of genetic issues to community organizations including high school, university, and medical students, physicians, and community health programs.
MotherToBaby is a service of the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS), suggested resources by many agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you have questions about exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding, please call MotherToBaby toll-FREE at 866-626-6847 or try out MotherToBaby’s new text information service by texting questions to (855) 999-3525. You can also visit MotherToBaby.org to browse a library of fact sheets about dozens of viruses, medications, vaccines, alcohol, diseases, or other exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding or connect with all of our resources by downloading the new MotherToBaby free app, available on Android and iOS markets.