You hear about salmonella, especially in relation to poultry products that lead to contamination of meat with this bacteria. It's one of the causes of food-borne illness. It's also why experts recommend cleaning any surface where raw meat, particularly raw chicken, has been prepared.
What you don't hear as much about is a bacteria called listeria. Yet Haley Oliver, in the Purdue University Food Sciences Department, says it is an important problem to be reckoned with. Why? Because although cases of illness caused by the disease are fewer in number, they are usually more severe. Nearly one in five who have this disease die.
Listeria has been on the radar screen lately because it's linked to the deadly outbreak in cantaloupe last year. That case caused many sicknesses and deaths, and will likely spell doom for the company that produced the cantaloupe.
The cantaloupe incident is fairly unusual, Oliver says. The more common place to find problems with listeria in the American food supply is in deli meats. This refers to deli meat sliced at a meat counter, whether at a small shop or a mega-store, not to lunch meat that's prepackaged.
Oliver says it's largely a matter of sanitation and being very careful to clean all surfaces where meat will be cut or sliced. Unless equipment and counter space are cleaned often and regularly, they can become breeding grounds for this particular bacteria.
Part of Oliver's goal in her current project is to verify that this bacteria is fairly common in deli-meat products. The next step is to determine steps that retailers who have deli-meat counters can take to make it less likely that they will have a problem with this disease.