Urgent health warning for millions of Brits to avoid popular sandwich filling

Older adults, immune-compromised individuals and pregnant people have been urged to avoid eating smoked salmon.

British food standards agencies and the UK Health and Security Agency (UKHSA) have been investigating an outbreak of the bacteria listeria linked to the fish.

Listeriosis is a rare illness that can cause flu-like symptoms – think fever, aches and pains, vomiting and diarrhoea – according to the NHS.

Symptoms usually start within 24 hours after eating infected food, such as ready-to-eat sandwiches, unpasteurized milk, raw vegetables and some processed items like deli meats.

It also includes smoked and cured fish, such as salmon, which health chiefs say poses a risk if eaten past its best or not cooked fully.

A risk assessment by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and its Scottish counterpart showed certain groups of people are at a ‘higher risk of severe illness from listeriosis’.

The FSA and the Food Standards Scotland said yesterday anyone expecting a baby should avoid smoked salmon.

The agencies say that a listeria infection can lead to miscarriages or illness in newly born babies.

People with diabetes, liver disease or cancer and generally those with weakened immune systems – such as those undergoing chemotherapy – have also been told to be aware of the risks.

Elderly people – those aged 65 or over – are also being told to check out the FSA’s guidance on what listeria is and how to reduce the risk of infection.

On top of smoked salmon, smoked trout and gravlax, a Nordic delicacy of fresh salmon cured with salt and sugar, are also on the list of risky foods, the FSA add.

‘While the risk of contracting listeriosis in higher-risk individuals from cold-smoked fish is low, the severity of the illness is high,’ the agency said.

‘This means there is the potential for severe illness, hospitalisation, and death among higher-risk groups.’

Food safety experts say that certain ready-to-eat foods can act as Petri dishes for listeria, with the dishes being perfect homes for the bacteria to thrive in.

‘Cold-smoked fish’, normally labelled as ‘smoked’ on the packaging, and cured fish isn’t cooked enough to kill off any listeria potentially nested inside it.

So all fish should be cooked all the way through to ensure it’s safe to eat or served cold after being chilled in the fridge.

Health officials have been investigating listeria monocytogenes cases linked to smoked fish after they were first reported in 2020. 

There have been 19 recorded cases of people with listeriosis since then, according to NHS data. Four people died.

The FSA’s chief scientific adviser Professor Robin May said: ‘Our risk assessment shows that there is still an ongoing risk to health associated with eating cold-smoked fish for specific groups of vulnerable people, including pregnant women and individuals with impaired immunity. 

‘In light of the risk assessment, we are advising that these consumers avoid ready-to-eat cold-smoked and cured fish products. 

‘If you are in the group of people more at risk of listeria infection, and you decide to consume these products, we strongly recommend that you first cook them until steaming hot all the way through.

‘This will ensure that any listeria present in the product is killed before it is eaten.’ 

‘Most people who are affected by listeriosis will have no symptoms or experience mild diarrhoea which subsides in a few days,’ added Dr Gauri Godbole, a consultant microbiologist at the UKHSA.

‘Those who are more vulnerable can be at risk of severe illness such as meningitis and life-threatening sepsis. ‘

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