Feta cheese that’s been made from pasteurized milk is likely safe to eat because the pasteurization process will kill any harmful bacteria. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that pregnant women should only consider eating feta cheese they know has been made from pasteurized milk. You should only consume cheese that has a clear label that reads “made from pasteurized milk.”
However, that being said, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still warns there’s always a risk for pregnant women when they eat soft cheeses — even pasteurized products could contain bacteria if the cheese is made in a factory with unsanitary conditions.
The main risk of eating feta cheese, or any soft cheese during pregnancy, is that it can contain a harmful type of bacteria called Listeria monocytogenes that can be very harmful to your unborn baby.
Listeria monocytogenes is often found in foods made from animal products like dairy and meat or foods grown in soil that’s contaminated with the bacteria, like celery. It’s also found in meat products like cold cuts and hot dogs.
Many animals can have the bacterium without being sick, so farmers don’t realize they have it. Products made from the animals, like cheese from a cow, will contain the bacteria as well.
It’s also a very sneaky bacterium. It actually grows at refrigeration temperature, so keeping foods that have Listeria in them refrigerated won’t stop the bacteria from growing, either.
Cheese may appear completely normal and smell normal with the bacteria, so you’d have no way of knowing if the bacteria is present. You might not have any indication that something was wrong after eating a soft cheese containing the bacteria, either.
It won’t necessarily make all people who consume it sick, but Listeria is most harmful to individuals who are pregnant, over the age of 65, or have compromised immune systems.
According to the CDC, Hispanic women who are pregnant also have a 24 times higher risk of developing illness from Listeria, so it’s important to be aware of your risk before deciding to eat any soft cheese.
Eating a food that contains Listeria can lead to a condition called listeriosis, which is especially harmful to pregnant women. Listeriosis is very dangerous on its own — the CDC reports it’s actually the third leading cause of death from a foodborne illness.
In pregnant women, however, it’s especially dangerous. Listeriosis can actually cause a miscarriage in the first trimester of pregnancy. It can also cause premature birth later on in pregnancy, which carries the risk of prematurity and even death if the baby is born early.
The baby can also be infected by the bacteria. This can lead the baby developing:
- developmental disorders
- brain disorders
- heart issues
- kidney conditions
It can also cause blood infections and a brain infection called meningitis. It’s also linked to stillbirths.
Again, it can be difficult to know that you have listeriosis. It causes pretty mild symptoms in pregnant women. Symptoms usually include:
Pregnant women who do eat soft cheeses or other foods like cold cuts that have a risk for Listeria should be aware of the signs and symptoms of premature labor or stillbirth. These signs include:
- contractions or cramps
- any discharge or bleeding
- feeling “off”
- not feeling the baby move
Bottom line? There’s always a slight risk when eating soft cheeses. It’s best to avoid them during pregnancy if you can.
And if you’re going to choose feta cheese, make sure it’s a product manufactured from pasteurized milk. Be aware of the symptoms of listeriosis so you can seek medical treatment if you develop it.