This has been a very bad year for cheese. We used to think of it as a safe food. But not after the last few months! And it is no longer just those Salmonella or Listeria monocytogenes bacteria that are cropping up in cheese. It is E.coli 0157:H7 as well and Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (which can also be deadly, particularly if antibiotic resistant). Recently there has been "an outbreak of outbreaks" linked to our cheeses.
Almost all the contaminations have been in raw soft or semi-soft cheeses, many of them produced by higher end artisanal cheese makers, sold in the more expensive stores and served in upper end restaurants. In the United States, raw milk cheeses are only supposed to be sold if they have been aged for 60 days (which is expected to allow most bacteria to die). Well, after this year, the government certainly has some ammunition for extending that time period, or, prohibiting raw cheese sales altogether.
Let's take a look at a six month period, July through December, 2010. In July, there was a recall of - yes, aged - raw milk cheddar cheese made by Milky Way Farm in Pennsylvania. Staphylococcus aureus and enterotoxin bacteria were found in samples of the cheese. Also in July, Azteca Linda Corp. of New York, had to recall a number of fresh cheeses and string cheeses because of Listeria monocytogenes contamination.About 5 weeks afterwards, they had to do another recall for the same reason. Then in August Queseria Chiplo of New Jersey had to recall a huge variety of their fresh and string cheeses again because of Listeria. This was followed in early September with a cheese recall issued by Morningland Dairy of Missouri, which had a double contamination of its cheeses - Listeria and Staphylococcus aureus, distributed under both its own name brand and that of Ozark Hills Cheese. The "healthy" Whole Foods Market admitted that it had sold the recalled Morningland Dairy Cheese and the Ozark Hills Cheese, and conducted its owns recall.
Also in early September, Estrella Family Creamery of Monstesano, Wash. was found to be selling Listeria contaminated cheeses, but resisted recalling them (this is an interesting side issue for a future blog). Things were quiet for a month or so, but then in early November we got a new cheese contaminant - E.coli 0157:H7. And guess what - Costco found it was selling Gorganzola Cheese distributed by DPI Specialty Company which carried that deadly contaminant. Even worse, it had offered the cheese in store tastings. This was followed by a cheese recall by Del Bueno which included a range of cheese types (fresh, Ricotta cheese, dry cheese and more) again because of Listeria. In mid December, Sally Jackson Cheese was forced to recall all its soft cheeses made from raw cow, goat and sheep milk. To complicate matters, these cheeses apparently did not carry codes. Whole Foods was caught out again. It had repackaged the cheeses when cut up and placed its own store label on them.
If I have counted correctly - and haven't missed any - that makes some ten incidents associated with cheese in the last six months of this year. Well - not quite six months yet. A few days to go. Will there be more?