In almost every country, pregnant women are advised not to eat deli or luncheon meat (also called ‘lunch meat’). This includes pepperoni and salami.
In this article, I’ll use the term deli meat, but lunch meat is the same thing. It’s the pre-prepared, often processed meat you find at delicatessens and supermarket counters. It’s usually intended for use in sandwiches or salads. It’s convenient, popular, and eaten the world over. Unfortunately, it’s not always safe to eat in pregnancy. Pepperoni and salami are also classed as deli meats.
Examples of what is meant by ‘deli meat’ include:
- Dried or cured meat such as parma ham, prosciutto, bresaola, mortadella, coppa, chorizo, and similar meats. These are often referred to as charcuterie.
- Pepperoni, salami and other cured and/or smoked sausage types of meat, either sliced or whole or in sticks
- Cooked, processed meat such as ham, turkey, beef or chicken in pre-sliced or formed rolls that are sliced to order.
- Pre-packaged slices of meat ready to put in a sandwich or salad such as ham, pastrami or roasted meats
This list isn’t exhaustive, but in general, deli meat can be defined as being preserved or processed in some way, either by smoking, curing, adding salt or spices, or by adding preservatives. Non-deli meat includes meat straight off the bone, for example, carved chicken or turkey meat. Be aware, though, that ‘ham off the bone’ is still processed as ham is usually cured or brined in some way.
Why Can’t I Eat Deli Meat When I’m Pregnant?
It is not a myth that pregnant women should avoid deli or lunch meat. The reason pregnant women are told to avoid deli meat is that it carries the risk of being contaminated with listeria. Although rare, listeria can cause serious complications in pregnancy, including miscarriage. Some meats that are cured but not cooked, such as parma ham, may also contain Toxoplasma gondii, the bacteria that cause toxoplasmosis, which can also have a serious impact on pregnant women and their unborn babies.
Deli meat is particularly susceptible to bacterial contamination as it’s usually eaten cold, offering no opportunity for the bacteria to be killed off by heat before it’s eaten.
The way deli meat is displayed and stored also means it can be at risk of cross-contamination with other bacteria (for example, in a fridge display) or from the way it’s produced (for example, from offcuts or blends of processed meat). The good news is that heat kills bacteria, including listeria.
Can you eat Cooked or Heated Deli Meat in Pregnancy?
The only way to make deli meat safe in pregnancy is to heat it until its temperature reaches 165F or 75c. This is often referred to as ‘steaming hot’, if you’re unable to measure the precise temperature. At this temperature, harmful bacteria is killed, making the deli meat safe for pregnant women. Getting the deli meat to this temperature can be achieved in many ways, and is easy to do yourself at home.
How do I heat Deli Meat to Make it Pregnancy-Safe, and For How Long?
If you’re at a restaurant or sandwich bar, request that the meat be heated until steaming hot. This may mean that the deli or store has to heat the meat more thoroughly than they normally would. For example, Subway toasts their sandwiches just to warm the meat through, but you should ask if you can have it toasted for longer, or for the meat to be microwaved.
The same goes for any other place selling deli meat that you’re going to eat immediately – ask for it to be ‘steaming hot’, not just warm. Most places will be happy to do this for you. I wrote a separate article on which sandwiches you can eat in pregnancy, if you’re looking for ideas on fillings and safely heated deli meat examples, too.
At home, you have a few options when it comes to methods of heating deli meat to make it safe in pregnancy. These are listed below:
|Cooking Method||How to Heat the Deli Meat to a Pregnancy-Safe Temperature|
|Microwave||This is the easiest way to get deli meat up to temperature. Zap the meat for 30-60 seconds (depending on the power level of your microwave) until it’s steaming hot. If the meat is fattier (e.g. salami) and likely to splatter, you can cover it with kitchen towel as it cooks.|
|Toasting / Broiling / Grilling||All three methods here refer to putting the meat under some kind of heating element. Use a medium rather than a high setting or some deli meats will burn. Again, ‘steaming hot’ is the key here, which should take about 5-10 minutes depending on how fierce the heat is. Remember to turn the meat halfway through cooking so it’s evenly heated through.|
|Oven baking||An oven set to 400 F / 210c should be adequate to heat the deli meat through. Put the slices in a single layer on a baking tray and heat through for approximately 10-15 minutes until steaming hot.|
|Boiling||Not a common way of heating deli meat, but if you wanted to heat up deli meat without getting any char or crisping from the methods above, you could boil it for about three minutes, then drain and serve.|
In all the cooking examples above, the meat should be eaten immediately after it’s heated. If it’s left to cool down too long, it increases the chance of bacteria starting to multiply again, particularly if left uncovered and/or at room temperature. Always wrap and store deli meat in the fridge.
Is Pre-packaged Deli Meat Safe in Pregnancy?
The advice on whether you can eat pre-packed deli meat when you’re pregnant differs depending on which country you’re in. In the USA, the American Pregnancy Association state that pregnant women should avoid all types of deli meat, including those that are pre-packaged. You can still heat the deli meat to make it safe for consumption, though.
In the UK, the advice differs. The National Health Service advises that if the deli meat is pre-packaged and says “ready to eat” on the label, then it’s safe for pregnant women to eat, even if it’s used and served when it’s cold, without heating (e.g. in a ham sandwich). If you wanted to be ‘extra’ cautious, you could still heat the meat until steaming to ensure it’s safe for you to eat whilst pregnant.
It’s not clear why there’s such a difference in advice from country to country. It could be due to the way food is prepared and packaged, and differing food regulations. However, both agree that heated deli meats are safer for pregnant women to eat.
Is It Safe to Eat Nitrate-Free Deli Meat When Pregnant?
Many women think that the advice to avoid deli meat stems from the fact it often contains nitrates. This is not the case – deli meat can be contaminated with bacteria due to the way it’s made, stored and served. Pregnant women are told to avoid it for this reason, rather than the fact it contains nitrates.
The FDA specifies that food containing nitrates (or sodium nitrate) should contain fewer than 500 ppm (parts per million) of nitrates to make food safe for consumption (source: FDA). Many foods contain nitrates naturally, however, some are added to maintain color or to prevent spoilage. Many types of deli meat contain nitrates.
There are no official guidelines that advise pregnant women to avoid nitrates. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the USA and its equivalent organization in Europe (the European Food Safety Authority) both say that foods containing nitrates are safe for consumption at current levels.
When consumed, nitrates produce nitrosamine compounds in the body, which are known to be carcinogenic. However, there are, to date, no conclusive studies on whether nitrates at the kind of levels found in food have any significant effect on pregnant women or their unborn babies. Therefore food containing nitrates is considered safe to eat.
However, many foods that contain nitrates aren’t particularly nutritious or healthy in pregnancy anyway, as nitrates are found commonly in bacon, hot dogs, fatty deli meats and other food that is best eaten in moderation when you’re pregnant. If you have the choice, it can’t hurt to opt for a nitrate-free version of deli meat, if it’s available. However, it will still require heating through until hot, to be safe.
Can Pregnant Women Eat Pepperoni or Salami if it’s on Pizza?
If you’re pregnant you can still eat deli meat, pepperoni and salami on a pizza, so long as it’s cooked until steaming hot and/or sizzling. Be careful of pizza toppings that are added after it comes out of the oven, and also if the pepperoni is in a folded pizza (calzone) as it’s harder to tell if the pepperoni has been heated through.
If you are specifically looking for advice on pizza, I wrote a thorough guide to eating pizza in pregnancy that you may be interested in reading.
Examples of Deli Meat, Pepperoni and Salami that are Safe in Pregnancy:
There are some situations where the deli meat (including pepperoni and salami) is already heated enough in certain types of dishes to make it safe for you to eat in pregnancy. All these foods refer to the meat being eaten and served hot, soon after it’s cooked:
- Soups and Stews – for example, Spanish Chorizo chunks in a hot soup or stew will be fine to eat if you’re pregnant
- On top of a pizza, where the pizza and its topping is steaming hot and the meat is sizzling when it comes out of the oven
- Pepperoni or salami sticks that have been heated through before eating
- In a toasted or grilled sandwich, panini or on toast, or a hot ‘open sandwich’ where the meat has been microwaved or otherwise cooked until steaming hot, not just warmed
- Dried salami or pepperoni in a packet (or in an unrefrigerated sausage or stick) if it’s heated until steaming or fried/grilled until sizzling when served.
Help – I’m Pregnant and I ate Deli Meat!
Don’t worry if you have unknowingly eaten cold deli meat. Statistically, your chances of contracting listeria are very low. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there are around 1600 cases of listeriosis per year (source: CDC). Considering how much deli meat is eaten day in, day out in the US, that’s a tiny percentage. However, because a listeriosis infection is so serious, you should watch out for any symptoms after eating uncooked deli meat.
Symptoms of listeriosis include:
- A high temperature or fever
- Muscular aches
- flu-like symptoms
Many of the above symptoms may be due to ‘normal’ issues in pregnancy such as morning sickness. However, if you have eaten uncooked or raw deli meat and notice anything out of the ordinary or feel unwell, consult a health professional straight away. Let them know you ate deli meat and how long ago. It’s very likely you’ll be fine, however, it’s better to check. In the future, use these guidelines to heat the deli meat first, making it much safer for consumption in pregnancy.