Well, it is a small coincidence. The genus of bacteria we know as Listeria, which contains three pathogenic species of bacteria (L. monocytogenes, L. ivanovii, and L. grayi), was in fact named after 19th century surgeon and antiseptic advocate Joseph Lister. Nonetheless, the hysteria is well-founded. These bacteria can commonly be found in soil, where they can contaminate produce, meat, and seafood. Listeriosis, the disease caused by these bacteria species, primarily affects older adults, those with weakened immune systems, newborns, pregnant women, and occasionally others. It generally infects the central nervous system, and presents flu-like symptoms in addition to stiffness, convulsions, meningitis, encephalitis, and brain abscesses.
Though listeriosis is, fortunately, an uncommon disease (1600 annual cases and 260 annual deaths in the U.S.), it is only rare because of successful and strict food safety measures. Listeria is very common in soil, but it is killed by sufficient cooking and pasteurization. Even still, it survives at very low temperatures, such as in refrigerators, and can be spread after cooking and before consumption. It is especially prevalent in soft cheeses, melons, raw sprouts, cold cuts and other meat, and smoked seafood.
Various ways that farms can kill off listeria may include very cold temperatures (under 4 degrees Celsius) for a sustained period, irradiation at high temperatures, and pasteurization. To prevent outbreaks, farms and packing plants have crucial responsibilities to keep sanitary conditions. Many of these regulations were issued in the public interest under the Food Safety Modernization Act. To read our coverage on compliance under FSMA, read here.