Eating healthy during pregnancy is important for the health of both mother and baby. However, with so much conflicting advice out there, it can be confusing to know what foods are actually unsafe. One food that often gets put in the “unsafe” category is deli meat, like ham, turkey, roast beef, and salami. But is lunch meat really off limits for pregnant women?
The main concern with deli meats is the risk of foodborne illness from bacteria like Listeria, Toxoplasma gondii, E. coli, and Salmonella. While the chances of getting sick are low, the consequences can be serious during pregnancy. So it’s understandable why many doctors recommend avoiding deli meats entirely to be on the safe side.
However, with proper handling and preparation, you may be able to continue enjoying your favorite sandwiches without worry during pregnancy. This comprehensive guide will cover everything you need to know about eating lunch meat while pregnant, including:
- The specific foodborne illness risks deli meats may pose
- Tips for safely handling, cooking, and storing deli meats
- Healthy alternatives if you want to skip deli meats altogether
- Answers to common questions on the topic
After reading, you’ll understand the facts so you can make an informed decision about whether to eat lunch meats based on your own risk comfort level.
- Deli meats pose a small risk of foodborne illnesses like Listeria, Toxoplasma gondii, E. coli, and Salmonella, which can cause serious pregnancy complications.
- Thorough cooking destroys any dangerous bacteria present in lunch meats. As long as proper food safety guidelines are followed, the risks are low.
- Reheating deli meats until steaming hot before eating greatly reduces the risks. Microwaving is the safest reheating method.
- Pregnant women are advised to avoid hot dogs and deli meats labeled as “deli-style” unless thoroughly cooked first.
- Following good food hygiene like washing hands and preventing cross-contamination is key for safe consumption.
- Healthy alternatives like roasted chicken, tuna, egg salad, and nut butters provide lower-risk protein options if avoiding deli meat.
Deli Meat and Foodborne Illness Risks
Deli meats refer to pre-packaged luncheon meats like ham, turkey, roast beef, bologna, salami, and other cured, smoked, or processed meats. They are called “deli” meats because they are commonly purchased at the deli counter in grocery stores.
The primary safety concern with eating deli meat during pregnancy involves the risk of foodborne illness. Deli meats are considered a higher-risk food because the processing methods used to prepare them can introduce dangerous bacteria like Listeria, Toxoplasma gondii, E. coli, and Salmonella.
When pregnant women contract foodborne illnesses, it increases the chances of complications like miscarriage, stillbirth, and birth defects. For this reason, many healthcare providers recommend pregnant women avoid eating deli meats entirely to eliminate the risks.
However, it’s important to understand that the actual chances of getting sick from eating deli meats is quite low. One study estimated the risk of listeriosis from deli meats during pregnancy is 1 in every 100,000 servings. Another study found the overall risk of listeriosis in the United States to be 0.7 cases per 1 million pregnant women.
So while deli meats do pose a small foodborne illness risk compared to other foods, the likelihood of contracting an illness from them is still very low, though the consequences of illness can be quite severe.
Listeria and Pregnancy
Listeria monocytogenes is one of the main foodborne illness risks associated with deli meats. Listeria can be found in unpasteurized dairy products, produce, processed meats, and ready-to-eat foods that are stored for long periods in the refrigerator.
When a pregnant woman contracts listeriosis, the Listeria bacteria can spread to the placenta and fetus even if the mother shows no signs of illness. This can lead to pregnancy complications like:
- Preterm labor
- Newborn sepsis
- Meningitis in the newborn
The good news is Listeria is killed by high heat. So as long as deli meats are cooked thoroughly until steaming hot before eating, the risk of Listeriosis is extremely low.
Toxoplasma Gondii and Pregnancy
Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite sometimes found in raw or undercooked meat and unwashed produce. If a pregnant woman contracts toxoplasmosis, the parasite can cross the placenta and cause birth defects like blindness, intellectual disabilities, and brain and eye damage in the fetus.
The CDC estimates about 1 in 10,000 pregnant women in the United States get toxoplasmosis each year, usually from eating undercooked contaminated meat or produce. Properly cooking meats to safe internal temperatures destroys any Toxoplasma gondii parasites present. So the risk from thoroughly cooked deli meats is very low.
E. Coli and Pregnancy
E. coli refers to a species of bacteria that naturally occurs in the intestines of animals and humans. While most strains are harmless, some like E. coli O157:H7 produce a powerful toxin that can cause severe food poisoning.
Pregnant women typically recover from E. coli infections without complication. However, severe cases can lead to a life-threatening complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which causes kidney failure.
E. coli is most commonly transmitted through contaminated water or food, especially undercooked hamburgers and ground beef. It’s less common in deli meats but can occur if proper processing guidelines aren’t followed. Thorough cooking kills E. coli bacteria, so the risk from heated deli meats is very low.
Salmonella and Pregnancy
Salmonella is another bacteria that can contaminate raw meats, poultry, eggs, and dairy. In pregnant women, Salmonella infections can lead to:
- Fever, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps
- Dehydration from loss of fluids
- Preterm labor and miscarriage
Salmonella is most commonly found in raw or undercooked poultry, eggs, and meat. It can also contaminate foods via cross-contamination from these raw ingredients.
As with other foodborne illnesses, thoroughly cooking meats to a safe internal temperature destroys any Salmonella present. The USDA recommends cooking deli meats like ham, turkey, chicken, and beef to 165°F (74°C) or hotter to kill pathogens like Salmonella.
So while the risks are low, pregnant women should take care to fully cook or reheat deli meats before eating to reduce exposure to any bacteria present.
Safe Handling and Cooking Guidelines
To enjoy deli meats safely during pregnancy, follow these food safety guidelines:
Purchase and Storage
- Check expiration or use-by dates and choose fresh, unexpired meats.
- Refrigerate deli meats at 40°F (4°C) or below and use within 3-5 days of opening. Discard if they develop an off smell or color.
- Keep deli meats sealed until ready to use and don’t cross-contaminate other foods.
Cooking and Reheating
- Cook deli meats like ham, turkey, chicken, and roast beef to an internal temperature of 165°F (74°C) until steaming hot.
- Only microwave deli meats if they will be eaten right away. Do not let microwaved meats sit out at room temperature.
- When reheating deli meats, use a food thermometer to verify they reach 165°F (74°C).
- Bring soups, casseroles, and sauces containing deli meats to a full boil when cooking or reheating.
- Avoid cross-contamination by using separate cutting boards, plates, and utensils for deli meats and ready-to-eat foods.
- Wash hands, counters, cutting boards, dishes, and utensils thoroughly before and after handling deli meats.
- Prevent bacteria growth by refrigerating leftovers containing deli meats within 2 hours.
Following proper food safety practices minimizes any risks and allows pregnant women to continue enjoying deli meats in moderation.
Tips for Safely Consuming Deli Meats
Here are some additional tips for pregnant women wanting to keep enjoying deli meats without worry:
- Opt for freshly sliced deli meats from the butcher counter rather than pre-packaged meats whenever possible.
- Consider buying premium, high-quality deli meats like Boar’s Head or Dietz & Watson, which follow stricter safety protocols.
- Avoid hot dogs and meats labeled “deli-style” unless reheated to 165°F (74°C) first. These meats pose a higher safety risk.
- Microwave sandwiches containing deli meats for 15-20 seconds before eating to reduce Listeria risk.
- Roast your own whole turkey breast or chicken and slice it for sandwiches instead of using deli turkey.
- Look for alternative lower-sodium deli meats like Applegate Farms organic turkey with “no nitrates or nitrites added.”
- When dining out, ask about how deli meats are handled and cooked before ordering a sandwich.
Again, while deli meats come with a small risk of foodborne illness, the likelihood is very low. Being informed and taking proper precautions allows pregnant women to continue enjoying luncheon meats in moderation.
Healthy Lunch Meat Alternatives
If you want to avoid deli meats entirely during pregnancy, plenty of nutritious alternatives make tasty sandwiches and wraps. Here are some lower-risk protein-packed options:
- Chicken breast, cooked rotisserie or grilled chicken
- Lean roast beef and steak, cooked to 145°F (63°C)
- Pork tenderloin, cooked to 145°F (63°C)
- Canned tuna or salmon, preferably low-sodium or gourmet versions
- Cooked shrimp, crab, or lobster salad
- Sliced avocado
- Hummus, bean, or lentil spreads
- Nut butters like almond butter or sunflower seed butter
- Grilled or roasted veggies like eggplant, zucchini, peppers, mushrooms
- Hard boiled eggs
- Beans and legumes like black beans, chickpeas, lentils
- Tempeh, tofu, or seitan
- Sliced hard cheeses like cheddar, Swiss, provolone, Monterey Jack
- Soft cheeses like mozzarella, feta, goat cheese (avoid soft unpasteurized cheeses)
- Cottage cheese or ricotta cheese
With so many tasty and nutritious sandwich fillings to choose from, avoiding deli meats doesn’t mean sacrificing flavor or protein during pregnancy.
Is it safe to eat Subway while pregnant?
Subway sandwiches containing thoroughly cooked meats like roast beef, chicken, turkey, or ham that are heated/toasted are safe to eat during pregnancy. Avoid higher-risk meats like cold cuts and deli-style meats unless heated first.
What lunch meats are safe when pregnant?
Thoroughly cooked, reheated lunch meats like ham, turkey, chicken, roast beef and corned beef are considered safe if properly handled. Avoid uncooked meats like pepperoni, salami, and hot dogs unless cooked to 165°F (74°C) first.
Can I eat Boar’s Head lunch meat while pregnant?
Yes, Boar’s Head is a reputable brand that follows strict safety protocols. As long as their meats are cooked/reheated to 165°F (74°C) before eating, they pose minimal risks during pregnancy.
Is it OK to eat lunch meat if I microwave it first?
Microwaving deli meats until steaming hot (165°F) greatly reduces bacteria risks. Make sure to use a food thermometer to verify meats reach a safe internal temperature. Only microwave what you plan to eat right away rather than microwaving in bulk.