Listeria is a gram-positive, rod-shaped bacterium that is ubiquitous and can grow under either anaerobic (without oxygen) or aerobic (with oxygen) conditions. 

The Prevalence of Listeria in Food and the Environment

Listeriosis is one of the most important bacterial infections worldwide that arises mainly from the consumption of contaminated food.[1] The disease is caused by Listeria monocytogenes, which is considered an opportunistic pathogen that affects mainly those with underlying immune conditions, such as pregnant women, neonates, and elders, resulting in septicemia, meningitis, and/or meningoencephalitis. Of the six species of Listeria, only L. monocytogenes causes disease in humans. It thrives between bacteria 86-98.6oF (30-37oC), but Listeria can grow at temperatures as low as −0.4°C and survive in freezing conditions down to −18°C.[2] This unique quality allows thermal characteristics to be used as a means of differentiating Listeria from other possibly-contaminating bacteria. 

Listeria monocytogenes is omnipresent in nature; it is found widely in such places as water, soil, infected animals, human and animal feces, raw and treated sewage, leafy vegetables, effluent from poultry and meat processing facilities, decaying corn and soybeans, improperly fermented silage, and raw (unpasteurized)  milk.[3]

Foodborne listeriosis is relatively rare but is a serious disease with high fatality rates (20%–30%) compared with other foodborne microbial pathogens. Severe L. monocytogenes infections are responsible for high hospitalization rates (91%) among the most common foodborne pathogens, may cause sporadic cases or large outbreaks, and can persist in food-processing environments and multiply at refrigeration temperatures, making L. monocytogenes a significant public health concern.[4]

Ready-to-eat foods are a notable and consistent source of Listeria. For example, a research study done by the Listeria Study Group found that L. monocytogenes grew from at least one food specimen in the refrigerators of 64% of persons with a confirmed Listeria infection (79 of 123 patients), and in 11% of more than 2,000 food specimens collected in the study. Moreover, 33% of refrigerators (26 of 79) contained foods that grew the same strain with which the individual had been infected, a frequency much higher than would be expected by chance. The danger posed by the risk of Listeria in ready-to-eat meats prompted the USDA to declare the bacterium an adulterant in these kinds of meat products and, as a result, to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for the presence of this deadly pathogen. The Code of Federal Regulations includes requirements for the post-lethality control of Listeria in meat and poultry products. This regulation is referred to as “The Listeria Rule” and was enacted in 2003. The rule outlines prevention and control measures that must be taken in processing facilities to reduce the risk of contamination of ready-to-eat products.[5]

Transmission of and Infection with Listeria

Listeria typically spreads to people through contaminated food or water but can also be transmitted from mother to fetus. Except for the transmission of mother to fetus, human-to-human transmission of Listeria is not known to occur. Infection is caused almost exclusively by the ingestion of the bacteria, most often through the consumption of contaminated food. The most widely accepted estimate of foodborne transmission is 85-95% of all Listeria cases. 

The infective dose—that is, the number of bacteria that must be ingested to cause illness—is not known but is suspected to vary based on the strain. In an otherwise healthy person, an extremely large number of Listeria bacteria must be ingested to cause illness—estimated to be somewhere between 10-100 million viable bacteria (or colony forming units “CFU”) in healthy individuals, and only 0.1-10 million CFU in people at high risk of infection. Even with such a dose, a healthy individual will suffer only a fever, diarrhea, and related gastrointestinal symptoms.

The amount of time from infection to the onset of symptoms—typically referred to as the incubation period—can vary to a significant degree.[6]

According to the CDC, symptoms of Listeria infection can develop at any time from the same day of exposure to 70 days after eating contaminated food. According to the FDA, gastroenteritis (or non-invasive illness) has an onset time of a few hours to 3 days, while invasive illness can have an onset varying from 3 days to 3 months. According to one authoritative text:

The incubation period for invasive illness is not well established, but evidence from a few cases related to specific ingestions points to 11 to 70 days, with a mean of 31 days. In one report, two pregnant women whose only common exposure was attendance at a party developed Listeria bacteremia with the same uncommon enzyme type; incubation periods for illness were 19 and 23 days.

Adults can get listeriosis by eating food contaminated with Listeria, but babies can be born with listeriosis if their mothers eat contaminated food during pregnancy. The mode of transmission of Listeria to the fetus is either transplacental via the maternal bloodstream or ascending from a colonized genital tract. Infections during pregnancy can cause premature delivery, miscarriage, stillbirth, or serious health problems for the newborn. Pregnant women make up around 30% of all infection cases while accounting for 60% of cases involving the 10- to 40-year age group.

[1]           Reda, W. W., Abdel-Moein, K., Hegazi, A., Mohamed, Y., & Abdel-Razik, K. (2016). Listeria monocytogenes: An emerging food-borne pathogen and its public health implications. The Journal of Infection in Developing Countries10(02), 149-154.

[2]           Santos, T., Viala, D., Chambon, C., Esbelin, J., & Hébraud, M. (2019, May 24). Listeria monocytogenes Biofilm Adaptation to Different Temperatures Seen Through Shotgun Proteomics. 

[3]           Manning, A. (2019). Microbial Food Spoilage and Food Borne Diseases. In Food microbiology and food processing (pp. 125–130). Chapter 2. ED-TECH PRESS. 

[4]           Arslan, F., Meynet, E., Sunbul, M. et al. The clinical features, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis of neuroinvasive listeriosis: a multinational study. Eur J Clin Microbiol Infect Dis 34,1213–1221 (2015).

[5]           USDA Staff. (2014, January 1). Controlling Listeria monocytogenes in Post-lethality Exposed Ready-to-Eat Meat and Poultry Products.

[6]           Goulet V, King LA, Vaillant V, de Valk H. What is the incubation period for listeriosis? BMC Infect Dis. 2013; 13:11. Published 2013 Jan 10. doi:10.1186/1471-2334-13-11