Skip to content

Deadly Listeria Outbreak Tied to Deli Meats Still Under Investigation

Hospitalized victims in three states reported eating Italian-style cold cuts; one person died in Florida

a customer buys food at a deli


En español | The cause of a multistate listeria outbreak remains under investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In October, the CDC identified Italian-style deli meats as the likely source, but health authorities have yet to pinpoint a specific type of meat or supplier. Listeria is bacteria that can cause a potentially deadly foodborne illness that people age 65 and older are at higher risk of contracting.

All 11 reported cases in Florida, Massachusetts and New York resulted in hospitalizations, with one death linked to the outbreak occurring in Florida. Between Aug. 6 and Oct. 30, health investigators collected samples from victims ages 40 to 89 years old (the median age is 84).

Of the 10 victims interviewed by investigators, all had eaten Italian-style cold cuts, such as salami, mortadella and prosciutto, that were prepackaged or purchased sliced to order at the deli counter.

Steps to prevent getting sick from deli meats

  • Wash your hands after handling deli meats and clean refrigerator shelves, countertops, utensils and other surfaces that may have come into contact with deli meat. Listeria can survive in refrigerated temperatures and easily spread to other foods and surfaces.
  • Separate deli meats from other foods in the refrigerator. The juice from deli meats can contaminate other foods, utensils and food-preparation surfaces.
  • Keep factory-sealed and unopened packages of deli meats in the refrigerator for no longer than two weeks. Meats that are sliced from the deli counter or opened packages should discarded after five days.

Source: CDC

The CDC recommends avoiding eating deli meat unless it is heated to an internal temperature of 165 or until steaming hot just before serving.

Symptoms of a listeria infection

Listeriosis, the infection caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes, most often causes sickness in adults 65 and older, people with weakened immune systems, and pregnant women and newborns. Symptoms may include headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, fever, muscle aches and convulsions.

People usually report symptoms one to four weeks after eating food contaminated with listeria. But some people have reported symptoms as late as 70 days after exposure to as early as the same day of exposure.

Listeriosis is diagnosed when a bacterial culture grows the germ from a sample of body tissue or fluid, such as blood, spinal fluid or the placenta. It is treated with antibiotics.

About 1,600 people in the U.S. get listeriosis each year, resulting in about 260 deaths, the CDC estimates. Americans 65 and over are four times more likely to get a listeria infection than others.

AARP Membership -Join AARP for just $12 for your first year when you enroll in automatic renewal

Join today and save 25% off the standard annual rate. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life. 

The CDC, which is investigating the outbreak along with state health authorities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, asks those who ate deli meat and are experiencing symptoms of listeria to call their doctor.

Editor’s note: This article, originally published Oct. 26, 2020, has been updated with the latest information from the CDC’s investigation.