A new CDC report about the deadly El Abuelito queso fresco Listeria outbreak in 2021 outlines why Listeria is a known risk in the production of soft cheeses. The outbreak, which sickened 13 people, ended in May 2021, with 12 hospitalizations and one death.
One year before the outbreak, FDA inspectors found nonpathogenic Listeria at El Abuelito‘s Paterson, NJ manufacturing plant, indicating that conditions for the growth of Listeria monocytogenes may be present. The agency sent a warning letter to the company listing El Abuelito’s food safety failures including:
- Lack of Listeria testing
- Lack of hazard analysis for each type of food it manufactures
- Lack of preventative controls for bacteria and other hazards
- Lack of written food safety plan
“Listeria monocytogenes is a known or reasonably foreseeable hazard for cheese; sanitation controls are generally applied to prevent contamination of RTE food such as cheese from the environment, and environmental monitoring for Listeria spp. is usually used to verify these controls,” the letter reads in part. The new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains why stringent hygiene is required in the production of soft cheese.
Unlike other bacteria, Listeria monocytogenes thrives in cool, damp environments. And refrigerated soft Hispanic-style cheese, with its high moisture/low salt/low acidity content provides good conditions for the pathogen’s growth. These cheeses, particularly those made in facilities that are not hygienic, Like El Abuelito’s, have been linked to numerous Listeria outbreaks over the last 20 years, according to the CDC.
Symptoms of a Listeria infection, called listeriosis, include high fever, severe headache, stiff neck, other muscle stiffness, loss of balance, and convulsions. Sometimes these symptoms are preceded by gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. Among pregnant women, Listeria infections can suffer miscarriage or stillbirth even if the symptoms they experience are mild.
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