Blessed are the cheesemakers: feds arrest cheese that sickened 38

An outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 first became public in Nov. 2010, and would eventually sicken at least 38 people in several U.S. states. Investigators believe the source was Dutch Style Gouda Cheese produced by Bravo Farms of Traver, California from raw milk and sold primarily at Costco and Whole Foods Market stores.

The artisan cheese maker temporarily shut down.

Bravo was forced to quarantined stockpiles of cheese, and — no real surprise – of the 24 unpasteurized cheese samples investigators took, 15 tested positive for listeria and one tested positive for E. coli O157:H7.

According to the L.A. Times today, state and federal investigators found at least 50 live flies flitting around a processing area at Bravo. They also reported that a rabbit hopped out of a storage room, and a dairy worker scratched his chin then handled milled cheese with his bare hands.

On Thursday, U.S. marshals and Food and Drug Administration agents arrived at the cheesemaker and seized the Gouda, along with piles of Edam and blocks of white cheddar. All told, investigators have locked up more than 80,000 pounds of cheese. Prosecutors say it is all headed for the garbage disposal.

Worried that the cheese would somehow reach the public, and acting to shift the case from state to federal jurisdiction, the Justice Department used a civil legal mechanism to arrest a product — food — and essentially impound it.

Prosecutors filed a civil complaint in federal court in Sacramento last week that lists the cheese — not the farmers who made it — as defendants.

John Sheehan, director of the FDA’s dairy division, said the inspections came from concerns "about raw-milk cheese made under artisanal conditions" and a flurry of nine artisan cheese recalls last year. As of October, the FDA had inspected 102 facilities, some big, some small. Of the 147 samples taken, 32 tested positive for listeria. The inspections continue.

Bravo, which is cooperating with federal officials, has been cleared to make cheese again. It’s using pasteurized milk.

Bravo chesse now pasteurizing milk after making 38 barf

There is a disconnect between people who produce food, and those they sicken.

Three months after she sampled gouda cheese at a Costco and got sick, a Colorado teenager and her family have decided:

• no more ground beef;
• no more sharing friends’ lunch food at school; and,
• no more tasting cheese, salmon or any other morsels that food stores offer to entice customers.

Madisyn Kirby, 15, who lives in Castle Rock, said the illness that doubled her over in October "was the scariest, worst time of my life. I never want it to happen again."

Madisyn’s family has filed a lawsuit in Douglas County Court claiming Bravo Farms-brand Dutch Style Gouda Cheese she sampled at a Costco store near Park Meadows mall was contaminated by E. coli.’’

Federal and state health authorities linked Bravo Farms cheese to an E. coli outbreak last fall that caused 38 illnesses in Colorado and other Western states.

Yesterday, Bravo Farms co-owner Jonathan Van Ryn said the company’s back in business and last fall’s E. coli outbreak apparently resulted from "an isolated instance of one day’s production."

Madisyn probably doesn’t feel like an isolated case.

Alicia Cronquist, director of foodborne illness investigations at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said a state health team detected "way too many E. coli cases being reported in the Denver metro area. … One thing that stood out was that many had sampled cheese at a large warehouse store. Home visits and lab tests pin-pointed gouda and other cheese samples as the source.

Jon Van Ryn estimated shutdown and recall costs at around $1.5 million and that Bravo, which has specialized in making raw-milk cheeses, is now pasteurizing its milk.


Cheese and food safety risk

I’d never heard of Fairway cause I’m not much of a New Yorker, but it is apparently “one of Manhattan’s culinary meccas.”

Coincidentally, a reader e-mailed to say she was “shopping at her local Fairway and noticed a sign lauding both the flavor and the safety of raw milk cheese — also trashing pasteurization a little. I spoke to the cheese supervisor about the danger of misleading people and he was quite pleasant about it, considering.”

I don’t have a picture of the sign, nor access to a local Fairway (in Manhattan, Kansas) but the stagecoach has been delivering fancier cheeses to some of the bigger retailers in the area, so I went out to ask a few questions.

This matters because, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported last week, the number of people sick with E. coli O157:H7 from consuming Bravo Farms Dutch Style Gouda Cheese – made from unpasteurized milk and offered through a Costco cheese sampler in several states—has risen to 37, including 15 hospitalizations.

As part of the investigation, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sampled other cheeses sold through Costco and found a different strain of E. coli O157:H7 in an unopened package of Mauri Gorgonzola cheese. No one’s sick that anyone knows of from this cheese, but bugs can be anywehere.

So what’s a shopper to do?

Contamination with dangerous microorganisms, especially listeria and E. coli O157:H7, can happen in cheese in made from raw or pasteurized milk. Based on consumption levels, I’m guessing there’s a higher level of outbreaks in cheese made from raw milk, but that would require a lot of analysis on consumption data. Regardless, it was enough for two of France’s top lait cru Camembert producers, Lactalis and Isigny-Sainte-Mère, to announce in June 2007 they were switching to cheese made exclusively with heat-treated micro-filtered milk (not quite pasteurized but still an affront to purists).

At the time, Lactilis’ spokesperson, Luc Morelon said, “I don’t want to risk sending any more children to hospital. It’s as simple as that."

Cheese made from raw milk – domestic and imported – is available in the U.S., including supermarkets in Manhattan (Kansas), but FDA stipulates such cheese must be aged for at least 60 days. The idea is acid and salt help destroy dangerous bugs.

But even the 60-day rule has come under question.

In July, 2008, Mansel Griffith of the University of Guelph, one of several experts who reviewed the status of raw milk cheese for the Canadian province of Quebec, told the Globe and Mail the 60-day limit had become arbitrary, since it is no longer a guarantee of destroying pathogens. Still, he believes raw-milk cheese continues to pose health-safety issues over potential pathogens.

John Sheehan, director of FDA’s division of plant and dairy food safety, told the N.Y. Times a year ago the 60-day aging requirement is no longer thought to be effective, and is currently under review.

Today I found out several raw milk cheeses were available at the local supermarket, but take a magnifying glass: I know I’m getting old, but even with my reading glasses I could barely make out the ingredients contained raw milk and that the cheese had been aged 60 days.

Some clarity would help.