Tainted cheese linked to Listeria infections in 4 states


Federal and state officials are investigating a Listeria monocytogenes outbreak linked to a Wisconsin company's cheese that has so far sickened five people in four midwestern states, killing one and causing a miscarriage in another.

News of the outbreak first came to light on Jul 2 when the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) warned consumers about Les Freres cheese made by Crave Brothers Farmstead Classics Cheese, based in Waterloo, Wis., because it has been linked to a multistate Listeria outbreak. It said one of the state's residents got sick after eating the cheese in the middle of May.

The next day the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) announced that it and the state's Department of Agriculture were working with federal partners on an investigation into listeriosis cases linked to eating Les Freres brand cheese and that 2 of the 5 patients sickened in the outbreak so far are Minnesotans. Both are older adults who became ill in early June, both were hospitalized, and one died, according to a news release from the MDH.

Early test results by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture on samples of cheese show evidence of Listeria contamination; confirmation tests are pending, according to the MDH.

On the same day, Crave Brothers recalled three of its specialty cheeses on the basis of the multistate investigation. They include Les Freres (2.5-pound packages), Petit Frere (8-ounce size in small, round wooden boxes), and Petit Frere with Truffles (8-ounce size in small wooden boxes). The recalled cheese was made Jul 1 or earlier.

The company said it immediately stopped making and distributing the products as soon as it learned of the investigation. George Crave, the company's president, said in the recall notice, "We are cooperating with regulatory agencies' ongoing investigation of the cause of the potential health risks."

Crave's recall said the products were distributed nationally through retail and foodservice outlets as well as by mail order. Its Web site said national outlets included Whole Foods Market and Kroger.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said yesterday that it is engaged in a fast-breaking investigation and that it and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture are conducting an investigation of the firm's processing facility.

The FDA said the other affected states include Indiana and Ohio. Citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), FDA said the five patients identified so far were infected with the same strain of Listeria. Patient ages range from 31 to 67, and illness onset dates range from May 20 to Jun 17.

The bacteria fingerprint isolated from the patients is indistinguishable from isolates obtained during environmental sampling at the Crave Brothers facility in 2010 and 2011, the FDA said.

In July 2010 the company recalled 4,090 pounds of its part-skim mozzarella cheese products because of unsanitary manufacturing conditions that could result in microcontamination. The action was a class 2 FDA recall; there is no indication in the recall notice that it was related to Listeria findings. In class 2 recalls, the probability of serious health consequences is considered remote.

Listeriosis is one of the most deadly foodborne diseases. The CDC recently released a report that said people over age 65 are four times more likely than the general population to be infected and that pregnant women are 10 times more likely to get sick. It said 21% of infections were deadly, according to a recent report.

The disease has a long incubation period, which makes it difficult for public health investigators to collect complete information because patients may not remember what they ate.

The pathogen is an environmental contaminant that can be present anywhere food is being prepared, and a wide range of foods can be contaminated at many different stages of the production process.

See also:

Jul 2 IDPH statement

Jul 3 MDH news release

Jul 3 FDA recall notice

Crave Brothers Web site

Jul 4 FDA outbreak information

Jul 21, 2010, FDA enforcement report

Jun 5 CIDRAP News story "New report shows stalled progress against Listeria"

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