As the popularity of queso fresco and similar soft cheeses has increased in recent years, so has the number of Listeria outbreaks linked to such cheeses. And one thing all of these outbreaks have in common is the unsanitary conditions at the facilities where these cheeses are made, according to a recent study by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
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Last week, the CDC announced a new Listeria outbreak linked to queso fresco and soft “Hispanic-style” cheeses such as queso blanco, and queso panela that has sickened seven people in Connecticut, Maryland, New York and Virginia. All of them have been hospitalized.
Pregnant women, seniors and people with compromised immune systems are at high risk for listeriosis. Among pregnant women, Listeria can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature delivery of an infected newborn. Hispanic pregnant women are disproportionately affected by Listeria outbreaks linked to these cheeses. In fact, their risk is 24 times that of the general U.S .population.
When the CDC announced the new outbreak last week outbreak, the agency also issued a public health alert urging people at high-risk for Listeria to avoid eating these cheeses until health officials can determine which brand is the source of the outbreak. People who are not at high risk should make sure that they only eat pasteurized cheeses at this time, the agency said.
Previous Listeria outbreaks have been linked to both pasteurized and unpasteurized or “raw” milk cheeses. Because it is not heat-treated, raw milk can contain pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7 and Listeria. The CDC study looked at listeriosis outbreaks that took place from 1998 to 2014. Of the 58 outbreaks reported during that time period, 17 (30 percent), were linked to soft cheeses.
These 17 outbreaks resulted in 80 illnesses, 14 fetal losses, and 17 deaths. Eight-eight percent of the people sickened were hospitalized. The outbreaks ranged in size from two to 34 cases. Ten of them were multistate outbreaks, 16 involved commercial cheeses, and 14 involved cheeses that were in the United States, according to the report.
Hispanic or Latin-style cheeses were implicated in 11 of the 17 outbreaks (65 percent), the other six outbreaks involved sheep’s-milk cheese, Middle Eastern– or Eastern European–style cheeses, Italian-style cheese, blue-veined cheese, and soft-ripened cheeses. Products recalls were issued in connection with all but four outbreaks.
Thirteen of the outbreaks were linked to cheeses made from pasteurized milk. Contamination of cheese made from pasteurized milk occurs when there are unsanitary conditions at the facility where the cheese is made.
“For instances in which information was available, we noted environmental contamination and sanitation deficiencies in all outbreaks associated with cheese made from pasteurized milk. Although some of these deficiencies were unlikely to contaminate cheese directly, they indicate a lack of attention to sanitation and hygiene. This finding highlights the importance of robust sanitation and L. monocytogenes monitoring programs for cheese manufacturers,” the report states.
Inspectors from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found a range of issues while inspecting the facilities where these cheese were made. They included roof leaks or condensate from pipes dripping onto cheesemaking equipment, an open sewer vent in a manufacturing room, food-contact aprons stored in restrooms, cockroaches and/or flying insects, failure to hold food at the proper temperature and the presence of Listeria.
Symptoms of a Listeria infection include headache, stiff neck, muscle aches, confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions. Sometimes upset stomach, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea are also reported. Usually, symptoms of listeriosis appear within two weeks of exposure but sometimes they can take as long as 70 days to develop.
The seven people sickened in the ongoing outbreak reported the onset of symptoms on dates ranging from October 20, 2020, to January 22, 2021. They range in age from 45 to 75 years old. Three are female four are male. Six of them are Hispanic.
Health officials have interviewed four of them to ask which foods they ate during the month before they became ill. Three of them said they had eaten ate at least one type of Hispanic-style fresh and soft cheeses and three specifically mentioned eating queso fresco.
State officials are testing samples they have collected to try and determine the brand and type of cheese that is the source of these illnesses.
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