Homemade cheese causes food poisonings

Source of Article:  http://www.deseretnews.com/article/705305748/Homemade-cheese-causes-food-poisonings.html

By Carrie A.Moore

Deseret News

Published: Thursday, May 21, 2009 5:34 p.m. MDT

At least seven Utahns have recently contracted salmonella poisoning, and an undetermined number of others have contracted campylobacter, likely from a Mexican-style soft cheese believed to be home-produced using unpasteurized milk.

Theron Jeppson, communicable disease health educator with the Utah Department of Health, said the common link appears to be queso fresco, a white, crumbly cheese that's main ingredient when produced by individuals at home is often raw goat or cow milk. Most of those affected live in Salt Lake County, he said.

The cheese is considered a Latin American staple, and health officials found the same strain of salmonella Newport among seven individuals who had consumed the noncommercial product.

Those producing the cheese may not realize it's illegal in Utah to sell privately produced products door-to-door if they can pose a potential health hazard, Jeppson said. "With the economy in a downturn, it may be that someone is supplementing their income," by selling the home-produced cheese on the street.

"We don't want to stop them from producing it, but we need to educate them that it's possibly what's causing people to get sick. We don't want them to go out and sell or distribute these products to neighbors or in neighborhoods," Jeppson said.

Public health officials are still unsure how the cheese is getting contaminated with salmonella bacteria, but believe it is either being contaminated from ingredients used to make the queso fresco (such as unpasteurized/raw milk), or from cross-contamination of the cheese (e.g. through using a bowl to prepare or hold raw chicken, and then using that same bowl without cleaning it to make the cheese).

While this current investigation is focused on individuals infected with salmonella bacteria, public health officials warn that other dangerous bacteria can also be spread through contaminated queso fresco, such as listeria, campylobacter, E. coli, and brucella. Public health agencies in Utah are currently investigating another cluster of illnesses due to the bacteria campylobacter, which may be associated with contaminated cheese made with raw or unpasteurized milk.

Officials said there is no way to detect salmonella or other bacteria in food without laboratory testing. Salmonella poisoning symptoms include headache, stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and almost always fever; symptoms last between three and seven days.

Residents can make queso fresco safely by using only pasteurized milk, or milk from a licensed seller. For a list of licensed sellers of unpasteurized milk, call the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food at 801-538-7156.

Those who produce the cheese should also keep the milk refrigerated, and avoid cross contamination by keeping the milk separate from contact with raw meat, using different utensils and counter space.

Health officials urge residents to avoid buying the cheese from street vendors, and to make sure it comes from a refrigerated area of the grocery store or market and is sealed and labeled for commercial sale.

Though symptoms of the illnesses may be mild, they can cause severe illness, especially in children, the elderly, and pregnant women.



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