I'm curious about the close vote for this question.

I absolutely understand why the question is bad as it was posed: we cannot know why this particular woman made a particular request.

However, I'm uncertain about whether the question would still be unacceptable (and "off-topic") if it were even slightly reworded. Wouldn't it be acceptable if it were just changed to be something like: "As a caterer/chef, I've had requests from pregnant women not to serve soft cheeses. Is serving raw soft cheeses a food safety concern?"

According to the major U.S. and Canadian food safety sites -- like the USDA, FDA, and CDC -- unpasteurized soft cheeses are in fact a significant food safety concern due to Listeria bacteria. While unlikely to affect most healthy adults, listeriosis can lead to major complications and can be life-threatening for pregnant women (and others with compromised immune systems). (Hard cheeses do not provide a good growth medium and are not a significant concern.)

The reality is that soft cheeses in the U.S. are required to be pasteurized when sold commercially. On the other hand, I know many people who make soft cheeses at home using unpasteurized milk. From that perspective, it is in fact a safety concern for food preparation when considering whether to serve those cheeses to pregnant women.

And, of course, there are plenty of places around the world where it is legal to sell unpasteurized soft cheeses.

As I said, I understand why this question as asked is bad. But just by editing a few words, would it not be an acceptable food safety question? If so, why was it closed so fast rather than edited? And if not, why not?

EDIT: Some of the discussion to this question has suggested that I'm claiming the issue is only about pasteurization, a topic not even brought up by the OP. It is NOT. The fundamental distinction pregnant women are taught about is generally soft vs. hard. Please note, for example, the detailed list given by the UK's NHS. The page identifies three categories:

  1. Hard cheeses, which are always considered safe (even if unpasteurized)
  2. Some soft cheeses, which are still safe if pasteurized
  3. Other soft cheeses and some softer blue cheeses, which are NEVER considered safe by some organizations regardless of whether they pasteurized or not

Please note that the cheeses specifically mentioned in the question fall into group (3), i.e., cheeses that may be considered unsafe for pregnant women regardless of pasteurization state.

This is NOT a question about pasteurization. It is a question about soft cheeses (which are a good growth medium for certain bacteria) vs. hard cheeses (which are not). I have NOT "read into" the OP's question: every fact he mentions is specifically in line with Listeria concerns for pregnant women regarding soft cheeses.

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    Even the page you choose to link to now is about pregnancy and has the heading "common health questions". It is not a food safety page provided by a food safety agency. It is a health page provided by a health agency. You are taking way too hard a line on this subject. You've made your point, but what you're asking us to do is explicitly against the charter of this site and SE in general. If a question is off-topic, we close it, we don't make guesses, educated or not. – Aaronut Jun 4 '13 at 1:52
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    @Aaronut - two of the other three previous links ARE to food safety agencies. Aren't you being somewhat selective here? I only provided this final link because you kept throwing out random assertions yourself about pasteurization, hard cheeses, etc., rather than doing any research first. It was merely the first link I found with the requisite information to refute your arguments. It's not enough to be RIGHT -- I have to do your research for you to find links with the correct header on top? – Athanasius Jun 4 '13 at 2:06
  • @Aaronut, also I am fundamentally disturbed by the way this discussion has gone. The idea that this is a "health" issue seems to imply that pregnant women are somehow "unhealthy" or "abnormal." I find this attitude discriminatory and bigoted. The major food safety agencies that we cite for all sorts of other information mention that it's unsafe to prepare certain foods in certain ways, and it's unsafe to serve other foods. These recommendations just only happen to apply to pregnant women. How is this not a "food safety" issue when these bacteria can kill? – Athanasius Jun 4 '13 at 2:11
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    I am "fundamentally disturbed" by your zealotry and putting words in other people's mouths and advise you to stop doing that if you want to retain any credibility. As for your last statement, lots of bacteria can kill, but coughing into your sleeve isn't food safety, it's just a health precaution. – Aaronut Jun 4 '13 at 2:27
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    @Aaronut, Look -- I actually think the Listeria advice about cheese is too strict. That's my informed (personal) opinion. If there's any zealotry going on here, it's that I believe we should follow our own guidelines in presenting food safety advice put out by food safety organizations, a creed you yourself seem to have been involved in creating for this site. While it makes sense that we should NOT provide specific medical advice to those with random illnesses and conditions, I believe it is only fair to repeat the standard safety advice not just for most people, but for all healthy people. – Athanasius Jun 4 '13 at 2:57
  • @Aaronut - By the way, I'm done with debating this issue. I apologize if at any point I have been overbearing or impolite. – Athanasius Jun 4 '13 at 2:59

The question as asked didn't even seem to be a health OR food safety question to me; it basically boiled down to "Why won't this person eat this food?". Maybe it was because of the pregnancy, maybe she's partially lactose intolerant, maybe she just hates soft cheeses, maybe it's because she's on some diet or another, maybe it's because she's a Martian and they explode when given soft cheese. We can't guess someone else's mind.

Perhaps there may be formulations of that question which would have been acceptable... but we are under no obligation to read the posters mind. There was no hint of pasteurized or unpasteurized as the core issue. There was no hint that foods not considered generally safe were under consideration. The core issue, as clearly stated by the OP, was the pregnancy.

The question was saying, from a set of foods generally recognized as safe, why are some foods contraindicated for a specific condition? That is a question for a doctor, not a cook, in my opinion.

If someone asked, what foods should not be served to someone with chicken pox or Lou Gehrig's disease, or whatever, I would vote to close those as well.

We don't do health questions, distinguishing what is more or less risky, such as whether fattening foods are bad in general. I don't think we should take them on in more specific cases.

If it isn't a clear issue of food safety in the general case, to me, it is out of scope for this site.

That, at least, is my personal view of it.

  • I absolutely agree that we should not be offering medical advice or turning this into a site with info on specific dietary needs. However, there are plenty of acceptable questions that address the needs of vegetarians, vegans, those with various allergies, etc. If it's okay to provide an answer to what is acceptable for a person with a peanut allergy or something (with relatively low frequency in the population), why shouldn't we allow food safety advice for pregnant women, a "condition" that affects MOST women at some point and is arguably a "normal" state for the general female population? – Athanasius Jun 3 '13 at 18:19
  • Because we should not be defining what is safe for condition x. On the other hand, if someone asked "How can I find baked goods that DONT contain eggs" we don't have to make any health judgements, its a simple culinary fact. – SAJ14SAJ Jun 3 '13 at 18:21
  • We're not defining anything. Food safety organizations are. Isn't that our usual response about food safety questions: we follow the advice of major professional organizations, and we're not supposed to contradict them? As I said, I'm not arguing for special questions regarding chicken pox or whatever, and perhaps I phrased the title of my question wrong, but I don't regard pregnancy as a medical "condition." Most normal, healthy women will be pregnant at some point. That's not a "general case" of food safety? Does that mean we can't have questions about food safety for children, either? – Athanasius Jun 3 '13 at 18:27
  • Speaking for myself, the closest I am willing to come is to use the phrase "at risk group" which is really the issue--and that is a medical issue. – SAJ14SAJ Jun 3 '13 at 18:29
  • I guess my view, for what it's worth, is that if an issue of food safety is important enough for it to occur with high frequency as a general concern on the websites of organizations like the FDA, USDA, etc., it's probably important enough that people preparing food should be aware of it. (Also, by the way, I agree we can't read the OP's mind, but pregnancy + a distinction between hard/soft cheeses generally relates to standard food safety advice on Listeria; most people don't make the pasteurized distinction. I've heard such requests made quite a few times to chefs and caterers.) – Athanasius Jun 3 '13 at 18:42
  • I am not saying my own answer is the only answer... you should write up your viewpoint as an answer and see how the voting goes. – SAJ14SAJ Jun 3 '13 at 18:43
  • It seems that I often do not represent the mainstream ;-) – SAJ14SAJ Jun 3 '13 at 18:44
  • Of course, thanks... I'm not as familiar with how things go on Meta here. – Athanasius Jun 3 '13 at 18:51
  • I agree with this. "Is there a food safety concern with unpasteurized cheese?" might be a valid question, but the issue of pasteurization never even came up in the question, just "soft" vs. "hard" cheeses, and there are unpasteurized hard cheeses as well. – Aaronut Jun 3 '13 at 22:39
  • @Aaronut - the "soft" vs. "hard" cheeses is precisely what this question is about. Unpasteurized hard cheeses ARE safe for pregnant women; unpasteurized soft cheeses ARE NOT. The question was, in effect: "Is there a food safety concern for soft cheeses?" The answer is: "Yes, if unpasteurized. This safety concern does NOT exist for hard cheeses." (In fact, one study showed that Listeria is more likely to occur in pasteurized hard cheeses--in the rare instance in hard cheese at all--due to contamination after pasteurization. The question is about soft vs. hard, which have different rules.) – Athanasius Jun 4 '13 at 0:35
  • @Aaronut - See, for example, the UK's NHS guidance for evidence that this is a soft vs. hard cheese issue, not just about pasteurization. Note that hard cheeses are okay (even if unpasteurized), some soft cheeses should only be avoided if unpasteurized, and some soft cheeses should be avoided altogether by pregnant women (even if pasteurized). – Athanasius Jun 4 '13 at 1:01
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    @Athanasius Since you feel so strongly, maybe you should ask the on topic focused question, and answer it. But I don't believe in any way that original question that was closed asked the question you desire to answer except in the most liberal possible interpretation with generous application of information not included in that question. You are basically saying that since there exists some on topic question that is vaguely related we shouldn't have closed the original; I disagree. Note that Shoj9 already linked a parenting beta SE answer on this very topic. – SAJ14SAJ Jun 4 '13 at 1:09
  • @SAJ14SAJ, Thanks for the suggestion. I may do that. Please note my recent edit to my question here. I completely disagree that I'm taking some sort of "liberal interpretation" of the OP's question. Given that the facts of the case line up EXACTLY with food safety recommendations for pregnant women regarding Listeria risk, and given that I have never heard of nor found any other reason why pregnant women make a hard/soft cheese distinction, my interpretation is reasonable. Is it possible something else was going on with this woman? Yes, however, I'd bet my house my interpretation is correct. – Athanasius Jun 4 '13 at 1:18
  • @Athanasius The facts you want to reply with are credible... that isn't the same thing as saying that is what was actually asked, or that the question is on topic. – SAJ14SAJ Jun 4 '13 at 1:22
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    @Aaronut - So why is is okay to ask questions about botulism risks for TODDLERS? They are probably about as large a segment of the population as pregnant women... and just as "normal." – Athanasius Jun 4 '13 at 2:35

The real core subject of the question seems to be about "popular understandings of food safety, and the scientific/legal truth or untruth behind them". I can see how this would be relevant to an amateur or professional cook or chef, given he has some responsibility for the eater's safety, and should answer such concerns responsibly and correctly...

  • This was a very old question! But I agree - questions about food safety for higher-risk people (including pregnant people) are just as on-topic as general food safety questions. The important thing is to frame the question in that light. – Cascabel Dec 14 '17 at 19:28
  • Also, making your guests perceive food (of which you can responsibly say it IS safe) as safe is part of the art of food presentation, no? – rackandboneman Dec 15 '17 at 12:02

My basic view is that if a food safety issue is common enough to be a concern for the average "normal" healthy person at some point in their lives, and will affect food preparation, it should be considered a "general" food safety concern and thus reasonable for inclusion here.

I absolutely agree with SAJ14SAJ that we should not be offering general medical advice or targeted medical advice for various illnesses and conditions.

On the other hand, the standard food safety advice given by major organizations (FDA, USDA, CDC, in the U.S., other organizations in other countries, etc.) often differs for "normal" healthy people in various circumstances.

To my mind, pregnancy seems to fall in a similar category to questions like this one, dealing with botulism risks in honey for small children, which are rarely an issue for adults. In that question, we're dealing with standard food safety advice for a standard normal healthy person who just happens to be an infant or small child. Is it much different for a standard normal healthy woman who just happens to be pregnant (as most women will be at some point)?

I think I understand some of the reticence to cover such issues: there is a lot of wacko advice out there for pregnant women in particular, and we don't want to get into subjective questions. Personally, I think the Listeria situation regarding soft cheeses is a little overblown, after I researched such issues thoroughly a few years back. In a way, I'm actually advocating publishing information here that I personally disagree with. But it's the standard information offered by major food-safety organizations, as I linked in my question.

And I'd say this could be one way to separate out the off-topic or unanswerable opinion questions from the valid ones. Just as with most food safety questions, we generally follow the standard advice given by places like the FDA, USDA, CDC, etc. If we can't find clear guidance on such sites, the question should be considered one of "opinion" that we can't answer (and thus probably off-topic).

By the way, for this particular question, I agree that it may have been difficult to discern what the OP meant. On the other hand, the combination of pregnancy and a distinction between soft and hard cheeses is a reasonably clear indicator that we're probably dealing with Listeria concerns, given advice described on the websites linked in the question. (I've personally heard a number of such requests given to caterers and chefs.) As SAJ14SAJ pointed out, the issue of pasteurization never came up in the question, though in my experience it often doesn't in such cases: many pregnant women are afraid of ALL soft cheeses, particularly in restaurants and catered events where the provenance is less certain.

Regardless, the ignorance of someone asking a question should not be an impediment to our attempts to try to help him/her. Many times those asking a question can't identify the relevant details of a situation until we prod them for clarification.

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    I don't infer from the question that pasteurization and/or Listeria had anything to do with it. Most Brie and Camembert that you buy in North America is in fact pasteurized. Speculating on what might be the risks to pregnant women that the OP is alluding to is exactly what we avoid doing here. The question about botulism risks to children was a valid question because it was asking about botulism risks, not about what foods are safe for children. Similarly, a question asking specifically about Listeria in cheeses might have been fine, but that just wasn't what the question asked. – Aaronut Jun 3 '13 at 22:43
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    @Aaronut, I have had this exact conversation with a minimum of two dozen pregnant women in the past few years. I can assure you that, in the U.S., pregnant women are told: (1) hard cheeses are okay, and (2) soft cheeses are unsafe. Some doctors seem to mention that soft cheeses are okay if pasteurized, but many recommend to avoid them anyway "just in case," particularly in restaurants, parties, or catered situations, as in the OP's question. I have seen many pregnant women make special requests. I have never heard of another reason for making a soft/hard cheese distinction for pregnant women. – Athanasius Jun 4 '13 at 0:42
  • @Aaronut - Also, please note that while the OP's question may have been unclear, and it is possible that this specific woman had another concern, this particular risk itself is in NO WAY "SPECULATION." It is documented as a significant concern on multiple major food safety websites, as I noted in my question here. – Athanasius Jun 4 '13 at 0:43
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    That's all very nice and completely irrelevant because the question was asking what the health risk was and not why the risk exists or how to mitigate it. Health questions are off topic. That's the way it's always been here. Sometimes we might try to edit a question to be more constructive or on topic, but only when it's an issue of the question's tone and phrasing, not its actual subject. – Aaronut Jun 4 '13 at 1:34

@ SAJ14SAJ and @Athanasius also.I wrote the inicial question. My question was sincere and needed answereing I believe. My inicial question was headed with perhaps a misleading title "Soft Cheese and The Pregant Bride" and for this title I beleive the question was closed without the question being realy read. Surly as Athanasius has mentioned the question should have been edited and not closed.The question was quite clear and very food related. I had a wedding meal to prepare, one of the specs on the function sheet was that the bride was unable to eat soft cheeses such as brie, camembert, goats cheese etc and could I have hard cheeses available for her cheese plate course. As Head chef of the Hotel I was asked by numerous staff why she was only abe to eat soft cheese and not hard cheese, and was the fact that she was pregant relevant or a coincedent. I was unable to answer their questions and nor was I able to ask the Bride as of course she had other more important issues to address. Bacteria, pasturisation and other good sugestions were given but nothing very difinitive. I sopose if the question had been put differently or left open longer , well who knows. But this is food related , it is also a Health matter also as are many common matters that take place in the kitchen. SAJ14SAJ I can see you feel quite strong about this, but please read between the lines in this one

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    I am sorry, but I don't agree. You had a clear directive from your customer. All you had to do was follow it. It didn't matter why the customer requested this, or what his or her doctors may have told them that lead to it. The burden was on you to comply, or to ask the customers follow up questions to get the necessary information to comply. We at this site in my opinion neither should nor can read the customers mind third hand to figure out why. – SAJ14SAJ Jun 3 '13 at 23:11
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    Wow, with all respect SAJ14SAJ I carried out exactly what was requested of me from the customer and dont understand your stance on this . I am not an expert on cheese, clearly, however I asked the question because i was intrigued to know why soft cheese and not hard cheese, if there was a simple answer , happy days, if I thought it was because of a specific illness that this person has, then obviously I'd have asked it on a medical forum, but please take the question as it was intended, this was not a case of how long is a piece of string, please read my original question – chefsambob Jun 4 '13 at 0:04
  • It takes a vote from 5 people to close a question. I am not the bad guy here. – SAJ14SAJ Jun 4 '13 at 0:10
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    We understand your position and aren't trying to fault you for your curiosity. It wasn't a bad question to ask. It's clearly important information for pregnant women. It just wasn't on topic for this site because it's not about cooking - questions about diet or food in general usually aren't in scope. Providing health advice here would be like providing legal advice; we aren't experts, it wouldn't be accurate, and given that those are licensed professions, it probably wouldn't be entirely ethical either. So we don't offer it. – Aaronut Jun 4 '13 at 1:41
  • This was my exact question before being edited Cheese and the pregnant Bride? Just finished preparing a wedding today and one of the specs was that the Bride (whom was pregnant) was unable to eat certain types of cheese. Goats cheese, Brie, Camembert were all no nos but hard cheeses were ok. I should know why and I supose I could google the info also but I'd prefer to put it to the floor. Why could this lady only eat certain types of cheese, Im asuming the fact that she is pregnant holds a clue !! is a question about the difference between certain cheeses not about cooking ? – chefsambob Jun 4 '13 at 1:52
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    @Aaronut - elsewhere, you clearly state that it's okay to discuss a botulism risk for infants, even if it's not relevant for the vast majority of people (adults, or even older children). But discussing clear food safety risks for pregnant women, as identified on food safety websites, is only a "health issue"? Pregnancy, like infancy, is a normal stage of life for most women. I really, truly, don't understand the distinction you're trying to make, unless you're claiming that pregnancy somehow is equivalent to a disease or abnormality. – Athanasius Jun 4 '13 at 2:29
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    @Athanasius: Please stop grasping at straws. It's okay to discuss a botulism risk, period, because the prevention of botulism and other foodborne illness is an accepted element of food safety. Infancy is irrelevant, the risk of botulism from honey can apply to many groups, including the elderly and anyone with a depressed immune system. The question about infant botulism clearly referenced botulism. The question you're promoting wasn't about listeria or pasteurization, it was about pregnancy. – Aaronut Jun 4 '13 at 2:36
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    @Aaronut - "The question you're promoting wasn't about listeria or pasteurization, it was about pregnancy." Actually, I'm pretty sure that it was about whether there was some sort of safety distinction between hard and soft cheeses. The OP was just guessing that pregnancy was also relevant. Do we really have to insist that the person asking a question be able to name a specific scientific name for a bacteria or disease in order to ask about a food safety guideline? And what you said about botulism -- true for the same groups you mention regarding listeria too. – Athanasius Jun 4 '13 at 2:44

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