The first documented human case of listeriosis was in 1929 described by the Danish physician Aage Nyfeldt ("Etiologie de la mononucleose infectieuse,” Comptes Rendus des Seances de la Societe de Biologie, vol. 101, pp. 590–591, 1929). In the late 1920s, two researchers independently identified L. monocytogenes from animal outbreaks. They proposed the genus Listerella in honour of surgeon and early antiseptic advocate Joseph Lister, but that name was already in use for a slime mould and a protozoan. Eventually, the genus Listeria was proposed and accepted. All species within the genus Listeria are Gram-positive, catalase-positive rods and do not produce endospores. The genus Listeria was classified in the family Corynebacteriaceae through the seventh edition (1957) of Bergey's Manual of Systematic Bacteriology. The 16S rRNA cataloging studies of Stackebrandt, et al. demonstrated that L. monocytogenes is a distinct taxon within the Lactobacillus-Bacillus branch of the bacterial phylogeny constructed by Woese. In 2004, the genus was placed in the newly created family Listeriaceae. The only other genus in the family is Brochothrix.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has published a list of foods that have sometimes caused outbreaks of Listeria: hot dogs, deli meats, milk (even if pasteurized), cheeses (particularly soft-ripened cheeses such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined, or Mexican-style queso blanco), raw and cooked poultry, raw meats, ice cream, raw fruit, vegetables, and smoked fish. Cold-cut meats were implicated in an outbreak in Canada in 2008; improperly handled cantaloupe was implicated in both the outbreak of listeriosis from Jensen Farms in Colorado in 2011, and a similar listeriosis outbreak across eastern Australia in early 2018. 35 people died across these two outbreaks. The Australian company GMI Food Wholesalers was fined A$236,000 for providing L. monocytogenes-contaminated chicken wraps to the airline Virgin Blue in 2011. Caramel apples have also been cited as a source of listerial infections which hospitalized 26 people, of whom five died. In 2019, the United Kingdom experienced nine cases of the disease, of which six were fatal, in an outbreak caused by contaminated meat (produced by North Country Cooked Meats) in hospital sandwiches. In 2019, two people in Australia died after probably eating smoked salmon and a third fell ill but survived the disease. In September 2019, three deaths and a miscarriage were reported in the Netherlands after the consumption of listeria-infected deli meats produced by Offerman.