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Food Safety Risks for Pregnant Women

Reviewed by Karen Collins, MS, RDN, CDN, FAND
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During pregnancy, women and their unborn children are more likely to become very ill from food poisoning. A woman’s immune system changes during pregnancy, making it harder to fight off certain harmful foodborne infections. Use the following rules to reduce risk of harm to mother and her unborn child.

Wash Hands Often

It seems so simple, but it really does work. Proper hand-washing may eliminate nearly half of all potential cases of foodborne illness. It also significantly reduces the spread of the common cold and flu. Remember: wash your hands before, during and after meal preparation, and after using the bathroom, changing diapers, or handling pets. Use warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds. And use a clean, dry towel to dry your hands.

Practice Good Refrigerator Safety Habits

First, make sure your refrigerator works. Set it cooler than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. And your freezer should be 0 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Use a refrigerator thermometer and check it regularly.

Then, use your refrigerator properly. Put perishable foods in the refrigerator as soon as you get home from the store. Refrigerate leftovers within two hours. When outdoor temperatures reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer, refrigerate leftovers within one hour. Discard perishable foods left at room temperature longer than these limits. Store foods in small, shallow containers (2 inches deep or less). Discard opened packages of luncheon meats or spreads after three to five days. Eat foods by the "use-by" date on the package. If that date has passed, throw it away.

Thaw frozen foods in the refrigerator, in cold water (change water every 30 minutes to keep it cold) or in the microwave right before cooking. Do not leave frozen foods on the counter or in the sink to thaw, because that would give foods enough time at a “danger zone” temperature for harmful bacteria to grow

Keep Raw Meats and Ready-to-Eat Foods Separate

Prevent cross-contamination by keeping raw foods separate from ready-to-eat foods. Use two cuttings boards: one strictly for raw meat, poultry and seafood; the other for ready-to-eat foods such as breads and vegetables. Wash cutting boards thoroughly in hot, soapy water after each use or place in dishwasher. Discard old cutting boards that have cracks, crevices and knife scars.

Cook to Proper Temperatures

Proper cooking temperatures kill harmful bacteria present in food. Always use a meat thermometer to check the doneness of meat, poultry, seafood and dishes containing eggs. Use the following guide to internal temperatures foods should reach to be safe:

  • Beef, veal, pork, lamb: 145 degrees Fahrenheit (then, allow to rest three minutes before carving or consuming)
  • Poultry (chicken, turkey, duck): 165 degrees
  • Ground beef, veal, pork, lamb: 160 degrees
  • Ground poultry: 165 degrees
  • Casseroles, egg dishes: 160 degrees
  • Finfish: 145 degrees or until opaque flesh flakes with a fork
  • Scallops: cook until flesh is milky white or opaque and firm
  • Shrimp, lobster and crab: cook until shells turn red and flesh is pearly and opaque
  • Clams, oysters and mussels: cook until shells open during cooking (do not eat any from unopened shells)
  • Leftovers: reheat to at least 165 degrees
  • Deli-style meats and hotdogs: reheat until steaming hot
  • Soups, gravies and sauces: bring to boil
  • Meat marinade: boil for several minutes if you plan to re-use it.
  • Eggs: whether boiling, frying or scrambling, make sure the yolks and whites are firm, not runny

Foods to Avoid

In addition to keeping good food safety habits, there are certain foods that pregnant women should not eat:

  • Rare, raw or undercooked meats and poultry (rare hamburgers, carpaccio and beef or steak tartare)
  • Raw fish (including sushi, sashimi, ceviche and carpaccio)
  • Undercooked and raw shellfish (clams, oysters, mussels and scallops)
  • Fish containing high levels of mercury (swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel, shark, marlin, orange roughy, and big eye tuna)*
  • Refrigerated smoked seafood, unless it is in a cooked dish, such as a casserole. (Canned versions of smoked seafood are safe.)
  • Unpasteurized dairy products ("raw" milk and cheeses)
  • Some fresh soft cheeses (Feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined varieties and Mexican-style queso fresco) unless labeled as made with pasteurized milk (Check the label.)
  • Raw or undercooked eggs (soft-cooked, runny or poached)
  • Food items that contain undercooked eggs (unpasteurized eggnog, Monte Cristo sandwiches, French toast, homemade Caesar salad dressing, Hollandaise sauce, some puddings and custards, chocolate mousse, tiramisu, meringue pie and raw cookie dough or cake batter)
  • Raw sprouts (alfalfa, clover, mung bean and radish)
  • Deli salads
  • Unpasteurized fruit and vegetable juices
  • Refrigerated pate or meat spreads

*Although certain forms of fish listed above pose risk during pregnancy, seafood provides omega-3 fatty acids that are valuable for a baby’s brain development. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that women who are pregnant or breast-feeding consume at least 8 to 12 ounces of a variety of lower mercury seafood each week.

Some ready-to-eat foods require reheating before use. These foods include hot dogs, luncheon and deli meats and fermented and dry sausages. Throw away packaged items once the "use-by" date has passed.