A new US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) study has found that dairy products such as cream cheese are best consumed as close to the date of purchase as possible, and refrigerating leftovers at 40 degrees Fahrenheit proves to reduce the risk of Listeria bacteria.
Listeriosis is the illness that is caused by eating Listeria-tainted food, and it results in a higher rate of hospitalisation than any other foodborne illness. Pregnant women and the elderly as well as those with weak immune systems are at the highest risk from the illness.
The new FDA study has shown that cottage cheese, cream cheese and ricotta are rated at moderate risk to the illness. It says cheeses that are made with pasteurised milk prove to be much safer alternatives.
The report suggests that refrigerating food is the best way to avoid the potentially deadly illness. Mark McClellan, the FDA Commissioner, urged consumers to purchase thermometers for their fridges:
"One of the main findings here is to keep cool. Keeping the refrigerator at 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 degrees Celsius) reduces the risk of Listeria contamination."
Ready-to-eat turkey, ham and deli meats have the greatest risk of carrying the disease, says the report. Yet the US Department of Agriculture announced that the percentage of ready-to-eat meat and poultry contaminated with listeria declined by 25 per cent in the first nine months of 2003.
However, Rhona Applebaum, vice president for the National Food Processors Association, said: "There are no food products on the market that should be considered high risk; if a product were shown to pose a significant health risk to consumers, neither the FDA nor USDA would allow that product to be sold."
Some argue that even foods labelled ready-to-eat should be reheated before consumption by the elderly, pregnant women and those who suffer from chronic diseases.
Carol Tucker, director for the Consumers Federation of America, said: "The bottom line is that consumers should not assume that meat stamped 'USDA inspected and approved ready-to-eat food' is safe."