CDC: Cheesemaker's Process Blamed in Outbreak

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

April 10, 2014

An illness outbreak from a Wisconsin cheesemaker that was linked to one death and a miscarriage likely was caused by substantial sanitation deficiencies in the cheese-making process, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says.

The listeriosis outbreak occurred last summer and was linked to contaminated soft cheeses from Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese Co. of Waterloo.

The death was in Minnesota, while illnesses from Listeria monocytogenes were reported in Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Three Crave Brothers pasteurized soft cheeses were the subject of a nationwide recall as a result of the outbreak: Les Frères, Petit Frère and Petit Frère with Truffles. All three had previously captured national and international awards for Crave, one of Wisconsin's most well-known cheesemakers.

"Inspection of the cheesemaking facility revealed that substantial sanitation deficiencies during the cheese-making process itself, after the milk was pasteurized, likely led to contamination," the CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly report noted.

Pasteurization, a process in which milk is heated to a high temperature to destroy pathogens, eliminates listeria in milk. But contamination can occur after pasteurization, according to government regulators.

"Cheese-making facilities should use strict sanitation and microbiologic monitoring, regardless of whether they use pasteurized milk," the CDC report said. Details of the contamination were not in the report, and Crave Brothers declined to comment. Five people sickened told health department officials they had definitely or probably eaten one of three varieties of Crave soft-ripened cheese.

Three of the people had purchased the cheese at three different restaurants, and two had purchased it at two different grocery stores. The cheeses were shipped as intact wheels to the restaurants and stores, where they had been cut and served or cut and repackaged and sold to customers, according to the CDC report.

Laboratory tests conducted by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture on samples of the cheeses from two retail stores indicated the presence of the outbreak strain Listeria monocytogenes.

Listeria infections are among the three most deadly food-borne bacteria after toxoplasmosis and salmonella. Crave Brothers issued voluntary product recalls two days after it halted production of the three cheeses.

On July 11, the company voluntarily halted production of all cheese products made in the plant, the report noted.

All five people sickened in the outbreak were hospitalized, including the pregnant woman who suffered a miscarriage. They ranged in age from 31 to 67 years old, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

The company has not been fined, and checks of court records haven't revealed lawsuits.

Cheesemakers could face criminal charges for shipping contaminated cheese into the marketplace, according to Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in food safety cases. "But it's very rare that the FDA does anything with respect to fines or sanctions whatsoever in these cases," he said.

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