Costco Gouda suspected in 5-state E coli outbreak

Nov 5, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – Federal health officials and the Costco wholesale chain warned consumers yesterday not to eat a California company's raw milk Gouda cheese after a preliminary investigation linked it to a five-state Escherichia coli O157:H7 outbreak.

A press release yesterday from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the cheese was made by Bravo Farms and was sold and sampled at Costco stores in Colorado, New Mexico, California, and Arizona. Bravo Farm's Web site says its cheeses are made from fresh raw milk from its family's farm. The company, based in Traver, Calif., just south of Fresno, makes nine cheese varieties, including the Dutch-style Gouda implicated in the outbreak.

The CDC has received reports of 25 illnesses linked to the E coli outbreak strain since the middle of October, which includes 11 from California, 8 from Colorado, 3 from New Mexico, 2 from Nevada, and 1 from California. Nine of the patients have been hospitalized, including one with possible hemolytic uremic syndrome, a potentially fatal kidney complication from E coli infection. No deaths have been reported.

Costco has removed the cheese from store shelves and is asking customers to return any remaining Bravo Farms Dutch-style Gouda, and the CDC said customers can also dispose of the product by putting it in a sealed plastic bag and securing it in a trash can.

Federal officials and Costco are continuing to investigate the illnesses and possible contamination, and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has launched an investigation with California authorities at Bravo Farms.

Craig Wilson, Costco's assistant vice president, said the company has also used purchase records to notify consumers about the possibly tainted cheese, the Associated Press (AP) reported yesterday. He told the AP that initial results of Costco's own testing of the cheese are expected today.

The FDA requires imported and domestic cheese made from raw milk to be aged at least 60 days, according to an industry trade group.

American-made artesian cheeses, sometimes produced from raw milk using traditional cheese-making methods, have grown in popularity over the past two decades, according to background information on the Raw Milk Cheesemakers' Association (RMCA) Web site. The association has 46 member farms.

It said the FDA has proposed banning all raw milk cheeses, but trade groups and consumers have defended the existing rules, in part because they say a change would bar the import of Roquefort and Parmigiano cheeses.

In 2005 the FDA warned consumers about health risks from eating raw milk soft cheeses, which was prompted by a tuberculosis outbreak in New York City that year which was linked to queso fresco–style cheese either consumed in or imported from Mexico. The FDA at the time said unripened soft cheeses made with raw milk can cause listeriosis, brucellosis, salmonellosis, and tuberculosis, diseases that pose an especially high risk to pregnant women, newborns, seniors, and those with a compromised immune system.

In other foodborne illness developments, Maryland health officials yesterday said they are investigating a cluster of seven E coli O157:H7 infections they suspect may be linked to unpasteurized apple cider sold by Baugher Orchard and Farm, based in Westminster, Md. Three people have been hospitalized and no deaths have been reported, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (MDHMH) said in a press release.

The company yesterday voluntarily recalled its apple cider.

Meanwhile, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) yesterday warned that certain red leaf lettuce from grocery stores could pose a risk of Salmonella infection. So far no illnesses have been reported, the CDPH said in a press release.

The lettuce was sold between Oct 20 and Nov 1 at Canton Food Co. in Los Angeles, as well as Cardenas Markets and Numero Uno Markets throughout southern California. The lettuce was produced by Fresh Choice Marketing based in Oxnard, and it was sold as whole head lettuce without an identifying label. The company has recalled its lettuce, but the CDPH said it was concerned that consumers may still have it in their homes.

See also:

Nov 4 CDC press release

Bravo Farms Web site

Mar 16, 2005, CIDRAP News story "FDA issues warning on raw-milk soft cheeses"

Nov 4 CDPH press release

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