Cheese contaminated with listeria monocytogenes, a potentially deadly bacterium, has already killed one person of indeterminate age and sickened seven more including three newborns. Five of the illnesses are connected to pregnancy with two mother/newborn pairs and an additional newborn that was infected. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the death from the contamination was in California and the seven known illnesses are in Maryland.
The cheese is a semi-soft Hispanic style cheese called Cuajada en Terron and it is manufactured by the company Roos Foods of Kenton, Delaware. This company also makes the cheese brands La Purisima Crema Nica, Amigo, Mexicana, Santa Rosa de Lima, La Chapina and Suyapa. There is no evidence as of yet that the other brands of cheese have been contaminated. However, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is recommending that people not consume any cheese products made by Roos Foods pending further investigation.
All of the cheese products were purchased in Maryland at different locations of the same grocery outlet, which has not yet been identified. The Cuajada en Terron cheese has tested positive for listeria in one of those locations. All of the persons affected thus far have been of Hispanic ethnicity.
Although these illnesses were diagnosed several months ago, the investigation is ongoing. The Center for Disease Control is concerned that there may be additional cases and prefers to err on the side of caution especially as a listeria infection can kill adults, children and newborns and there have been previous cases in the U.S. of soft cheeses and produce being contaminated.
According to the CDC, approximately 800 confirmed cases of the life threatening infection “listeriosis” occur every year in the United States. Some more common foods that have been contaminated include a variety of Hispanic style cheeses like the one in this current outbreak, other soft cheeses and imported ricotta cheese. Other hosts to the bacterium have been in produce including cantaloupe, alfalfa sprouts and celery.
Symptoms of a listeria infection include muscle aches and pain, fever, and diarrhea and if these symptoms are present the infection has become invasive in that it has spread beyond the gastrointestinal track. Pregnant women are especially susceptible to the infection, which can lead to a miscarriage or premature birth. Unfortunately, the infection can also spread to the newborn which can be life threatening. Elderly adults and those with compromised immune systems are also more susceptible to the bacterium and additional symptoms can include confusion, loss of balance and headache.
The CDC has general guidelines on how to avoid a listeria infection, which include food-handling procedures that can minimize the risk of contamination. All produce should be thoroughly washed before cutting, consuming, or cooking. Produce that will be peeled, such as potatoes should be washed before peeling. Certain produce such as cucumbers and melons should be not only washed, but also scrubbed with a cleaning brush to remove any trace of the bacterium from the hard skin.
It is important as well to not cross contaminate vegetables, dairy and processed foods with any raw meat products including beef, poultry, pork and lamb and all meat should be cooked through the center to a safe minimum internal temperature. Make sure to use separate cutting boards and utensils and clean both thoroughly after each use. Kitchen counters and hands can also harbor the listeria bacterium as well as can the surfaces inside a refrigerator.
Pregnant women and those with newborns or young children, the immune compromised and the elderly should take extra precautions to avoid being exposed to the listeria bacterium. The infection caused by the potent bacterium has killed both the young and old and although the current cheese contamination seems to have been contained, the CDC has made it clear that caution is the best policy.
By Alana Marie Burke
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