Mr. (bathtub) Cheese sickens hundreds with salmonella in Utah

 Food hucksters sell nostalgia. See Michael Pollan on The Colbert Report for a fine example (video only works in the U.S.).

Biking home with Sorenne yesterday from school, a 20-something was walking a Brisbane sidewalk with pallets of strawberries and yelled out, “Want to buy some strawberries?”


He then sold a pallet to the owner of a shoe store.

The Salt Lake Tribune reports that some 2,100 Utahns – people who live in Utah, I guess — have been sickened with salmonella from homemade queso fresco.

The Salt Lake Valley Health Department has tracked down one source of the outbreak — an unnamed man dubbed "Mr. Cheese" who was making the product with raw milk and selling it to a Salt Lake City restaurant/deli.

The health department has confirmed that 73 people were sickened with the illness that causes diarrhea, fever and abdominal pain. But they estimate that hundreds more were ill and never reported it to the health department.

"They should not be purchasing food products in shopping center parking lots, [from people] distributing it out of their trunks or door to door," said Royal DeLegge, director of environmental health at the health department. "When you go into a retail setting, a deli or a store, you’re looking for labeling on the products."

The cheese probe took three years, involved a criminal investigator and extended to a fast-food franchise where Mr. Cheese’s wife worked.

People began to get sick in 2009 with Salmonella Newport, and the health department warned people not to buy the Mexican-style soft cheese from unapproved sources. Another 22 Newport cases popped up in 2010. The health department couldn’t find a common cause but heard of a woman selling cheese in a parking lot.

By June this year, another 32 people were sick with the strain. They commonly identified four restaurants and a market, where the local and state health department took samples of their queso fresco and samples from preparation areas. It found a positive DNA match from the cheese in the restaurant/deli.

That’s when the police got involved.

The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food had a name of a potential manufacturer of the cheese, who had a criminal past.

A criminal investigator for the county’s District Attorney’s Office put together a photo lineup for the restaurant owner, who identified his queso fresco source and called him "Mr. Cheese."

The health department later learned the man — whom they aren’t naming — made the cheese in his home using raw milk from a Midway dairy that is not authorized to sell raw milk. The man also is not licensed to manufacture cheese.
Food manufacturers are not allowed to produce products in their home because of the risk of contamination from sources such as pets and children.

Mr. Cheese’s wife may have contaminated her workplace with the queso fresco. Four customers and a food handler at four locations of a fast-food chain were sickened this year.