As I’ve been reading through pregnancy books and blogs, I’ve been haunted by lunch meat. Every source seems to tell me that lunch meat is very dangerous and to be avoided when pregnant due to the increased risk of listeriosis, a bacterial disease that can cause miscarriage or death in newborns. The other day I ordered a club sandwich and was about to take a bite when I saw the sliced turkey in it. As I put the sandwich down, I started thinking: can a club sandwich really be that lethal?
A little bit of research showed that only 2,500 people a year get listeriosis. That’s a 0.00083% chance, otherwise known as “incredibly, incredibly rare”. I started looking at the other foods and beverages I’ve been instructed not to consume:
bacon due to cancer-causing nitrates. The reality: Actually, the American Cancer Society says only high levels of consumption are tied to gastric cancer, and other scientists say the link between nitrates and cancer is indirect at best.
sushi due to risk of food poisoning and bacteria and mercury (for some fish). The reality: most fish consumed in the US is flash-frozen, which kills most parasites and bacteria. Mercury is a valid concern, but high-mercury fish are easy to avoid.
caffeine due to risk of miscarriage. The reality: studies have conflicting accounts. One found a slight link between caffeine and increased risk of miscarriage, but another did not.
There seems to be a trend here: Any risk, no matter how small or how uncertain, is considered reason enough to boot bacon or sliced turkey or other foods off the table. This is not only scare-mongering, it’s inaccurate and puts emphasis on tiny risks like listeriosis instead of large risks like cardiovascular issues, which accounts for 34% of maternal deaths according to the CDC. Fatal injuries also claim the lives of many pregnant women. Most of those injuries are attributable to motor vehicle accidents (44%) and homicide (31%), and yet I’ve not been warned once to take the train instead of driving or to make sure to watch out for a potentially violent partner.
It feels silly to be worrying about a risk so small, so unknown, that it’s not even in the top 10 causes of maternal or fetal death. So next time I get the club sandwich, I’m going to enjoy it. Who knows, I might even get a piece of sushi too.