Food Standards Scotland (FSS) and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) are advising pregnant women and those with a weakened immune system to avoid eating ready-to-eat cold-smoked or cured fish, following publication of a risk assessment showing they are at higher risk of severe illness from listeriosis. Products include smoked salmon, smoked trout and gravlax.
As the risk of serious illness from listeriosis increases with age, older people are also advised to be aware of the risks associated with eating these products.
The risk assessment was commissioned in response to an ongoing listeria outbreak linked to ready-to-eat cold-smoked fish that has claimed four lives since 2020. It found that while the risk of contracting listeriosis in higher-risk individuals from cold-smoked fish is low, the severity of the illness is high. This means there is the potential for severe illness, hospitalisation, and death among higher risk groups.
Jacqui McElhiney, Head of Science at FSS, said: “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. Those who are more vulnerable can be at risk of severe illness such as meningitis and life-threatening sepsis. Listeriosis in pregnancy can cause very serious illness in mothers and their babies.
Cold-smoked fish such as smoked salmon or trout, and cured fish such as gravlax, have not been fully cooked during the production process to kill any listeria that may be present, and therefore present a higher risk of infection.
‘Cold-smoked’ fish is normally labelled as ‘smoked’ fish on packaging. Ready-to-eat cold-smoked fish typically comes in thin slices, and it can be eaten cold. It may also be found in sushi.
Once thoroughly cooked, the smoked fish will be safe to eat, and can be served immediately, or served cold after being chilled in the fridge.
If consumers would like to add cold-smoked fish to dishes like cooked pasta or scrambled eggs, it is important to cook it first. This is because simply warming it through while preparing a meal will not heat the fish to a high enough temperature to kill any listeria present.
Smoked fish products that have been heat-treated during production, such as tinned smoked fish, may be safely consumed without further cooking.
Cases of listeriosis from smoked fish remain rare overall. If you have eaten these products recently, you do not need to do anything unless you get symptoms of the infection. These include a high temperature of 38⁰C and above, aches and pains, chills, feeling and being sick, or diarrhoea. Contact NHS 111 or your GP surgery if you are unwell and pregnant or have a weakened immune system and you think you could have listeriosis.
More information is available on Food Standards Scotland’s listeria guidance page.