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CHEESE: Panicky Consumers Seek Advice on Tainted Products : Panicky Consumers Seek Advice on Tainted Cheese

Associated Press

Frightened consumers sought poison information Friday as grocers stripped their shelves of a tainted Mexican-style cheese linked to 29 deaths or stillbirths in California and sold under various names in at least 12 other states.

“All of us associated with Jalisco Mexican Products Inc. are shocked and sick at heart,” company President Gary S. McPherson said Friday without admitting that his company’s products contained deadly bacteria. The two Jalisco brands of cheese involved are Cotija and Queso Fresco.

State and local health officials took no chances Friday, ordering all Jalisco brand products stripped from grocery shelves.

The contaminating bacteria, Listeria monocytogenes, “attacks either people who have some underlying disease like cancer, or pregnant women,” said Dr. Claire Broom, chief of the respiratory and special pathogens branch at the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

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“But not every pregnant woman who is exposed will become ill,” she said. “You can’t predict what’s going to happen--you can just have a probability.”

Officials have linked 22 deaths in Los Angeles County to the bacteria infection, said Toby Milligan, a spokeswoman for the county health department.

Nine of the victims were stillborn, five were classified as newborn deaths, and statistics on eight others were not immediately available, she said.

Seven cheese-related deaths in Orange County included four stillbirths and three infants who died within two days of birth, said Dr. Thomas Prendergast, the county’s epidemiologist.

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There was no immediate word on whether the cheese had been linked to deaths or illnesses in other states.

Jalisco cheeses were distributed in California, Arizona, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Illinois, Michigan, New York and Ohio, said Jim Greene, a spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration in Washington. Jalisco cheese also was sold in Nevada, two grocery chains said.

New Mexico Environmental Improvement Division Director Denise Fortort issued a warning about the cheese.

“We are pulling the whole line,” said Bob Mildenberg, regional sales manager for Ever-Fresh Foods, an Arizona distributor. “Obviously, at this stage, we are taking no chances with anything.”

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David Zeitlin, communications director for the Los Angeles County Medical Assn., which operates a telephone hot line, said, “Once the news broke about this Jalisco cheese problem, the phones in our poison information center began to ring nonstop.”

He said the 24-hour hot line received 525 calls between Thursday afternoon and 7 a.m. Friday. “We’re getting about 65 or 70 calls an hour right now.”

In the 87 California cases, all but three victims were Latinos, and Spanish-language news media also reported telephone calls from frightened consumers.

“They’re sick, but they don’t know if it’s from the Jalisco or not,” said Jose Morales, news editor at television station KMEX in Los Angeles.

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Jalisco voluntarily closed its plant in suburban Artesia on Thursday after being notified by health officials about the tainted cheese. The plant produces about 500,000 pounds of cheese a month.

Experts from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta are working with local health officers and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to inspect the plant.

The suspect bacteria is common in dairy livestock, fruits and vegetables, and in at least one outbreak four years ago in Boston, infected milk was shown to have been correctly pasteurized, Broom said.

Why the bacteria remained in the cheese is a major focus of the investigation, since Jalisco cheeses also are pasteurized, said Dr. Shirley Fannin, associate deputy director of health programs for Los Angeles County,.

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Besides the Jalisco brand name on 25 kinds of cheeses, the company distributed four types of cheese under the brand name Jiminez; six varieties under name La Vaquita, and nine varieties under the name Guadalajara.

The infections began in April, but it was not immediately apparent that there was one source for it.

Detect Contamination

The contaminating bacteria were detected after Fannin studied 50 to 60 different foods beginning in mid-May, gradually narrowing the focus of the research to cheese. She sent samples of four brands of cheeses to the Centers for Disease Control and received notice Thursday that the Jalisco cheese was contaminated, she said.

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Because so many infants were stricken, obstetricians were warned of the outbreak, which was recorded at about 30 hospitals, Fannin said.

Symptoms include “a mild, flu-like illness or a severe illness with fever, abdominal pain, headache, nausea and vomiting,” Milligan said.

Fannin said that about 80% of Jalisco’s cheese is sold in Los Angeles and Orange counties and the rest elsewhere in California and in other states.

Some grocers criticized authorities for taking more than five hours to alert the public--between learning of the tainted cheese at 9:30 a.m. Thursday and announcing the alert at a 3 p.m. news conference. But, Fannin said, the time was needed to set in motion the recall and to give the news media time to assemble.

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