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WASHINGTON - The government should mandate systematic testing for two dangerous foodborne pathogens charged the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and three parents who suffered miscarriages linked to those pathogens. CSPI, the American Public Health Association, and four other organizations today petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to require meat processors to conduct frequent tests for Listeria. CSPI also released a new report, Unexpected Consequences: Miscarriage and Birth Defects from Tainted Food, summarizing the risks to pregnant women and their fetuses posed by foods contaminated with the bacterium Listeria and the parasite T. gondii.

   “Listeria and T. gondii cause thousands of illnesses and hundreds of deaths each year,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food-safety director for CSPI. “These foodborne hazards are particularly harmful to fetuses, resulting in miscarriages, mental retardation, blindness, and other severe problems. Preventing exposure of pregnant women and other high-risk consumers to Listeria and T. gondii should be a top priority for federal food-safety officials.”

   According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year T. gondii infections due to eating contaminated meats and unwashed fruits and vegetables sicken about 112,500 and kill about 375 Americans. In addition, congenital toxoplasmosis, where the parasite is transmitted from the pregnant woman to her fetus, is estimated to cause mental retardation and blindness in as many as 400 to 6,000 children and may kill another 80 fetuses and newborns each year. Because T. gondii can cause such severe problems, toxoplasmosis accounts for $3.3 billion to $7.8 billion per year in economic costs. The government ranks it as one of the most expensive forms of food poisoning.

   Listeria causes approximately 2,500 illnesses and 500 deaths per year. Based on CDC data, CSPI estimates that about one-third of deaths involve pregnant women and their fetuses. Listeriacontaminates foods processed or packaged in unsanitary conditions.

   “If I had known about the risks of consuming deli meat while I was pregnant, I might have been able to prevent my miscarriage,“ said Lisa Lee of Columbus, Ohio, who was a victim in the 1999 Listeria outbreak caused by cold cuts distributed by the Sara Lee Corporation. “I’m speaking out because I want to prevent other women from going through what I went through.”

   Mary Lenkersdorf, of West Palm Beach, Florida, also suffered a miscarriage because of Listeria. “When I was pregnant for the first time, no one told me not to eat hot dogs, deli meats, or Brie or feta cheese. One afternoon, when I was four months pregnant, I started feeling sick. By the next night I had miscarried.”

   In its report and in a new brochure titled Protect Your Unborn Baby, CSPI advises pregnant women to avoid certain soft cheeses, rare meat and poultry, foods containing raw eggs, pâtes, raw shellfish, and unpasteurized juices. The materials also recommend that pregnant women avoid eating ready-to-eat meats such as hot dogs and luncheon meats unless they have been heated to steaming.

   “Action by the government, the food industry, the medical community, and consumers themselves could greatly reduce the tragic effects of Listeria and T. gondii. After all, miscarriage and birth defects are too high a price to pay for food poisoning,” concluded DeWaal.