Market microbial food safety? How a web of oversight still couldn’t prevent an outbreak

Molly Rosbach of theYakima Herald-Republic writes: Three people sickened, one dead, and many questions still unanswered.

ucm430733-300x168On the evening of Jan. 16 at the end of the work day, the state Department of Health issued a food-recall alert, warning that anyone who had recently purchased Queseria Bendita cheese should throw it out because of a listeria outbreak. The cheesemaker had been linked to three cases of listeriosis after the

Queseria Bendita was linked to a similar outbreak five years ago, when five people were hospitalized for listeriosis in Washington and Oregon. No one died, but two pregnant women in Oregon were infected, causing premature births, Oregon health officials said at the time.

Since the most recent recall, retailers have pulled Queseria Bendita products. While the cheese shop owners maintain that investigators have not found listeria in their cheese, but only in the Third Street facility — implying their products are safe — experts say the evidence is clear.

“One of the things I’m hearing — ‘Because they didn’t find it in the cheese, it’s not from these guys’ — no, it’s not true,” said Dr. Scott Lindquist, the state communicable disease epidemiologist. “This is not a common strain, and to have three patients in the state have it, and to have it in this Queseria Bendita, is not a coincidence.”

The case of Queseria Bendita illustrates how painstakingly difficult it can be to track down a foodborne illness and efficiently notify the consuming public of the danger: Roughly six weeks passed between the reported illnesses and the recall.

And despite new food-safety laws and multiple regulatory agencies to enforce them, inspections of high-risk food manufacturers are intermittent at best. When they do take place, the inspections may be superficial and unable to detect a culprit like listeria, which is good at hiding and not easy to eradicate.

While the family-owned company is vowing to clean up and come back, trust could be hard to regain.

Several different agencies share responsibility for food safety. The Yakima Health District, for example, periodically checks Queseria Bendita’s refrigerators — not the cheese or cheese-making equipment — to make sure already-packaged products are cold enough.

The state Health Department, the first to hear about the three infected patients from medical providers, investigated the illnesses and notified the Food and Drug Administration, which took over the investigation.

The state Department of Agriculture licenses Queseria Bendita, along with 3,000 other food processors in the state, and tries to have inspectors on-site at least once a year, though there is no law requiring a certain number of visits.

Agriculture Department officials inspected the cheese shop most recently in June 2014 and November 2013, and it passed both times. Those inspections, however, are limited: Officials check that employees follow general sanitation practices and that the floors and equipment look clean.

The Agriculture Department also conducts random product sampling statewide, rotating through different food products in different weeks. Thus it may have tested Queseria Bendita cheeses in recent years, but it has no record of environmental sampling at the Yakima facility since 2010, said Kirk Robinson, assistant director of food safety and consumer services.

“Sometimes, even doing product sampling, you’re not always going to catch it at that time,” Robinson said. “You try to do the best you can.”

The FDA has jurisdiction when a company’s distribution crosses state lines, so it also inspects the food-processing side of the cheese shop. FDA guidelines say high-risk facilities — those with known safety risks and a history of foodborne illness — must be inspected at least once within the first five years of the Food Safety Modernization Act, passed by Congress in 2010, and then at least once every three years going forward. FDA did not have mandatory recall authority until passage of the act.

Records show the last time the FDA inspected Queseria Bendita was January 2011, which was within the agency’s recommended guidelines.

“They might have damaged their reputation enough that they’ll never sell again,” he said.

Based on his experience with companies of all sizes, Bill Marler, a prominent Seattle attorney who has handled foodborne illness cases for more than two decades, said he wouldn’t call Queseria Bendita a bad actor, as listeria is so difficult to control.

But, “Companies that produce food have a moral and legal responsibility to produce food that doesn’t sicken and kill its customers,” he said. “So they’re responsible for what they sell.”

‘It refers to any manufacturer of dairy products’: blessed are the cheesemakers

As a turophile planning out my holiday cheese plate, I recently read with consternation a report by a Washington, D.C., environmental research organization that found cheese to have the third largest carbon footprint among all sources of protein. It stands behind beef (No. 2) and lamb (No. 1).

CheezwhizThe carbon released to transport animal feed, the methane belched by dairy animals, the energy expended to transform a gallon of milk into roughly a pound of cheese, and the fuel used to truck the finished product to stores combine to make the commercial cheese industry a major agricultural contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, the 2011 report by the Environmental Working Group found. For every 2.2 pounds of cheese produced, 29.7 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents are released into the atmosphere, the report said.

Buying Maine-made cheese – the state has more than 70 registered cheesemakers, so there are plenty of options – obviously cuts down on transportation-related emissions. And Maine Cheese Guild President Eric Rector, cheesemaker and owner of the Monroe Cheese Studio, says there are questions a cheese eater can ask of suppliers to make sure they are buying greener local cheese.

In her white lab coat and sensible crocs (there is no such thing), Sayer Dion Smyczek doesn’t look like a typical food revolutionary, but she is helping to upend the world of artisan cheesemaking.

For the past few months, Smyczek has worked as the nation’s first and only full-time microbiologist at the Cellars at Jasper Hill, a small creamery in northeastern Vermont. Although it sits above a cheese cellar, her state-of-the-art workspace would make any microbiologist feel at home.

Making cheese has typically been more art than science, relying on trial and error to create the perfect taste and texture. With their high-tech microbiology lab, Jasper Hill is changing all of that. They are turning cheesemaking into a science, giving artisans a chance to harness microbes in order to nurture new flavors and textures.

13 sick: Illegal cheese factory in Portugal leads to brucellosis outbreak

An unauthorized cheese factory in the northern Portuguese town of Baiao, 370 km north of Lisbon, is the source of an outbreak of brucellosis in the area, which has so far led to 13 confirmed infections, according to local press reports on Tuesday.

imagesBrucellosis, which is also known as Malta Fever, Rock Fever or Mediterranean Fever, is most often contracted from unpasteurized milk or milk products such as cheese. The disease leads to parasites in the host’s bloodstream and episodes may last weeks, months or even years. It causes potentially recurrent episodes of high fever, sweating and related anemia.

At least four of the victims of the outbreak have been hospitalized in the neighboring city of Porto, a spokesperson from the Northern Regional Health Administration told the Expresso newspaper.

UK student needs second kidney transplant 20 years after eating E. coli O157 contaminated cheese

A student who almost died after eating a contaminated cheese sandwich as a toddler has been told she needs a second kidney transplant.

lois.reid.e.coliLois Reid fell desperately ill when she was two years old. But a transplant at the age of six meant she could live a normal life.

This year, however, the 22-year-old suffered kidney failure again.

And now she has to play a waiting game again for another donor organ.

In the meantime, she spends three days a week hooked up to a dialysis machine in hospital.

But despite her illness and the exhaustion it causes, Lois managed to complete her final year of college.

And she passed her last exam just three days after getting out of hospital.

Lois said: “I couldn’t believe it when I found out I had passed. I phoned my mum and she just burst into tears.”

The family’s nightmare began after Lois fell ill after eating a sandwich with

home-made farmhouse cheese that was contaminated with E coli O157.

She was taken to Aberdeen Royal Children’s Hospital, where doctors found out her kidneys were failing.

Lois spent four years on dialysis, during which she suffered a stroke and frequent life-threatening infections.

1 dead, two others sick; Oasis Brands Inc. cheese recalls and investigation of human listeriosis cases

Several recalls of cheese and dairy products produced by Oasis Brands, Inc. due to possible Listeria monocytogenes contamination have been announced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

listeria4On August 4, 2014, Oasis Brands, Inc. voluntarily recalled quesito casero (fresh curd) due to possible Listeria monocytogenes contamination after the pathogen was isolated from quesito casero produced by this firm.

On October 6, 2014, Oasis Brands, Inc. recalled cuajada en hoja (fresh curd) after FDA isolated Listeria monocytogenes from environmental samples collected from the production facility.

On October 16, 2014, Oasis Brands, Inc. recalled various cheese and dairy products sold under the Lacteos Santa Martha brand.

Whole-genome sequences of the Listeria monocytogenes strains isolated from recalled quesito casero cheese produced by Oasis Brands, Inc. were found to be highly related to sequences of Listeria strains isolated from one person who became ill in September 2013 and two persons who became ill in June and August 2014.

These three ill persons were reported from three states: New York (1), Tennessee (1), and Texas (1).

All ill persons were hospitalized. One death was reported in Tennessee. One illness was related to a pregnancy and was diagnosed in a newborn.

oasis.listeria.oct.14All ill persons were reported to be of Hispanic ethnicity and reported consuming Hispanic-style soft cheese. The two persons who were able to answer questions about specific varieties of Hispanic-style soft cheeses reported consuming quesito casero, though neither could remember the brand.

CDC recommends that consumers do not eat any of the recalled cheese and dairy products. Restaurants and retailers should not sell or serve them.

Although limited information is available about the specific cheese products consumed by ill persons, the whole genome sequencing findings, together with the cheese consumption history of the patients suggests that these illnesses could have been related to products from Oasis Brands, Inc.

This investigation is ongoing, and new information will be provided when available.

We’re in waste managment: Liechtenstein thieves steal 1.3 tonnes of Listeria cheese

Germany’s food inspection office is concerned bad cheese will be sold either directly or indirectly, posing a health risk to anyone who consumes it, ATS reported on Tuesday.

sopranos.don't.fuck.with.usThe problem is the “Alp Sücka” cheese was found to be contaminated with listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium that causes listeriosis, a potentially deadly infection.

Liechtenstein’s food office had banned the cheese but during a check discovered that 236 five-kilogram wheels of the dairy product had gone missing, ATS said.

They were probably stolen from open containers where they were stored temporarily before planned destruction, the news agency reported.

The country’s prosecutor has launched an investigation into the cheese’s disappearance.

Blessed are the cheese makers (except those that have an import alert)

Following the don’t-age-on-wood-boards-uh-just-kidding incident earlier this year, the U.S. FDA are again raising the hackles of cheese purveyors. This time over an import alert.

According to Janet Fletcher of the L.A. Times Daily Dish, an FDA-issued alert on certain manufacturers of raw milk cheeses due to presumed insanitary conditions is keeping some top-selling cheeses off of baguettes.

In early August, these cheeses and many more landed on an FDA Import Alert because the agency found bacterial counts that exceeded its tolerance level. Cheeses on Import Alert can’t be sold in the U.S. until the producer documents corrective action and five samples test clean, a process that can take months.hqdefault

Of course, French creameries haven’t changed their recipes for any of these classic cheeses. But their wheels are flunking now because the FDA has drastically cut allowances for a typically harmless bacterium by a factor of 10.

The limits for nontoxigenic E. coli were cut from 100 MPN (most probable number) per gram to 10 MPN. These are bacteria that live in every human gut; they are typically harmless and we coexist happily. But the FDA considers them a marker for sanitation: If a cheese shows even modest levels of nontoxigenic E. coli, the facility that produced it must be insufficiently clean.

Dennis D’Amico, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut whose specialty is dairy microbiology, says this premise is flawed.

“There was no health risk in all the years we operated at 100 MPN,” says David Gremmels of Oregon’s Rogue Creamery, which produces several raw-milk blues. “We look at this as an arbitrary change.”

Gremmels and others say they felt blindsided by the revised FDA guidelines, learning about them only when European cheeses began being held. The agency hasn’t offered any scientific support for the altered E. coli allowance, prompting unease about its decision making.

The stepped-up testing creates headaches for companies like Gourmet Imports, a Los Angeles cheese importer and distributor.

“In the past year, we’ve had delays on things you never would have imagined would be held before,” reports general manager Alex Brown. Even Parmigiano-Reggiano, a well-aged, low-moisture cheese unlikely to have microbial issues, was recently held for testing.

“It’s the safest cheese on the planet,” Brown says.

An import alert allows FDA to ask for more data (micro or inspection from an exporting country) and according to the Alert page, This import alert represents the Agency’s current guidance to FDA field personnel regarding the manufacturer(s) and/or products(s) at issue. It does not create or confer any rights for or on any person, and does not operate to bind FDA or the public.

After a bit of digging I found a 2009 FDA Staff Compliance Policy Guide Sec. 527.300 Dairy Products – Microbial Contaminants and Alkaline Phosphatase Activity (CPG 7106.08) that states:

The presence of Escherichia coli in a cheese and cheese product made from raw milk at a level greater than 100 MPN/g (Most Probable Number per gram) indicates insanitary conditions relating to contact with fecal matter, including poor employee hygiene practices, improperly sanitized utensils and equipment, or contaminated raw materials. The presence of Escherichia coli at levels greater than 10 MPN/g in a dairy product, other than a cheese or cheese product made from raw milk, also indicates insanitary conditions. The presence of Escherichia coli at levels greater than 10 MPN/g in a dairy product made from pasteurized milk indicates that contamination occurred after pasteurization.

Any government agency needs to clearly and effectively communicate risk-based decisions, (especially changes) and provide the evidence to back a particular decision.

L. monocytogenes in a cheese processing facility: Learning from contamination scenarios over three years of sampling

The aim of this study was to analyze the changing patterns of Listeria monocytogenes contamination in a cheese processing facility manufacturing a wide range of ready-to-eat products. Characterization of L. monocytogenes isolates included genotyping by pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) and multi-locus sequence typing (MLST).

listeriaDisinfectant-susceptibility tests and the assessment of L. monocytogenes survival in fresh cheese were also conducted. During the sampling period between 2010 and 2013, a total of 1284 environmental samples were investigated. Overall occurrence rates of Listeria spp. and L. monocytogenes were 21.9% and 19.5%, respectively. Identical L. monocytogenes genotypes were found in the food processing environment (FPE), raw materials and in products. Interventions after the sampling events changed contamination scenarios substantially. The high diversity of globally, widely distributed L. monocytogenes genotypes was reduced by identifying the major sources of contamination.

Although susceptible to a broad range of disinfectants and cleaners, one dominant L. monocytogenes sequence type (ST) 5 could not be eradicated from drains and floors. Significantly, intense humidity and steam could be observed in all rooms and water residues were visible on floors due to increased cleaning strategies. This could explain the high L. monocytogenes contamination of the FPE (drains, shoes and floors) throughout the study (15.8%). The outcome of a challenge experiment in fresh cheese showed that L. monocytogenes could survive after 14 days of storage at insufficient cooling temperatures (8 and 16 °C). All efforts to reduce L. monocytogenes environmental contamination eventually led to a transition from dynamic to stable contamination scenarios. Consequently, implementation of systematic environmental monitoring via in-house systems should either aim for total avoidance of FPE colonization, or emphasize a first reduction of L. monocytogenes to sites where contamination of the processed product is unlikely. Drying of surfaces after cleaning is highly recommended to facilitate the L. monocytogenes eradication.

International Journal of Food Microbiology, Volume 189, 17 October 2014, Pages 98–105, DOI: 10.1016/j.ijfoodmicro.2014.08.001

I. Rückerla, M. Muhterem-Uyara, S. Muri-Klingera, K.-H. Wagnerc, M. Wagnera, B. Stessl

State-sponsored jazz fail: unlocking France’s secrets to safer raw milk cheese?

Leave it to U.S. National Public Radio to glorify raw milk cheese from France, based on some secret manuscript that requires $20,000 to translate (Amy could probably do it for nothing, but I wouldn’t want to speak on her behalf).

UnknownWhat NPR left out was that some former raw milk cheese producers have switched to using pasteurized milk.

In 2007, while Amy and I were touring around France, she wrote, two of France’s (and thus the world’s) top lait cru Camembert producers, Lactalis and Isigny-Sainte-Mère, announced that they are forgoing the status of “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée” and switching to cheese made exclusively with heat-treated micro-filtered milk (not quite pasteurized but still an affront to purists).

Lactilis’ spokesperson, Luc Morelon said that although they recognize the importance of Camembert traditions, they’re making the change “[b]ecause consumer safety is paramount, and we cannot guarantee it 100 per cent. We cannot accept the risk of seeing our historic brands disappearing because of an accident in production.” In response to his critics Morelon added, “I don’t want to risk sending any more children to hospital. It’s as simple as that.”

Nice research, NPR.

Cheese recalled in Canada because of E. coli O26:H11

La Fromagerie Hamel is recalling La fromagerie Hamel brand “St-Felicien lait cru France (Rhone-Alpes)” cheese from the marketplace due to possible E. coli O26:H11 contamination. Consumers should not consume the recalled product described below.

La Fromagerie HamelRecalled products

Brand Name: La Fromagerie Hamel

Common Name: “St-Felicien lait cru France (Rhone-Alpes)”

Size: 180 g

Codes on Product: 11772104 Best Before 19/08/2014

UPC: None

What you should do

Check to see if you have recalled product in your home. Recalled product should be thrown out or returned to the store where it was purchased.

Food contaminated with E. coli O26:H11 may not look or smell spoiled but can still make you sick. Symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, mild to severe abdominal cramps and watery to bloody diarrhea. In severe cases of illness, some people may have seizures or strokes, need blood transfusions and kidney dialysis or live with permanent kidney damage. In severe cases of illness, people may die.

This recall was triggered by a recall in another country. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is conducting a food safety investigation, which may lead to the recall of other products. If other high-risk products are recalled, the CFIA will notify the public through updated Food Recall Warnings.

The CFIA is verifying that industry is removing recalled product from the marketplace.

There have been no reported illnesses associated with the consumption of this product.