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Search for Deadly Bacteria Expands to 27 Area Dairies

Times Staff Writer

As the death toll from a disease-producing bacteria linked to Jalisco-brand Mexican cheese rose to 30, state and federal inspectors Monday expanded their search for the source of the contamination to more than two dozen Southern California milk suppliers.

Los Angeles County health officials said an 82-year-old Latino man from the San Gabriel Valley was the latest victim to die of the rare ailment. He was not further identified. Reports of people being stricken by the flu-like ailment continued to surface across Southern California, but not all the cases seemed to be caused by eating the cheese.

State Department of Food and Agriculture inspectors, meanwhile, collected milk samples from 27 dairies in Riverside and San Bernardino counties that supplied milk to Jalisco Mexican Products Inc., and also plan to check cheese handling and packaging procedures at the company’s Artesia factory, which was shut down last Thursday.

Pasteurization Process

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The move came after they found no problems with the process used to pasteurize raw milk at Jalisco’s plant.

Only two dairies were identified last Friday as primary suppliers of milk to Jalisco. They were Alta-Dena Dairy in the City of Industry and Fred Deboer Dairy in Ontario. Officials, who expect to have some test results later this week, did not identify any other other dairies.

State agriculture officials in Sacramento announced that preliminary checks of Jalisco’s milk pasteurizing equipment indicated it was working properly. At a Monday press conference, Hans Van Nes, state Food and Agriculture deputy director, said that a special team from federal and state agencies would begin a much more detailed look at every aspect of the cheese-making process in an effort to find out where the bacteria entered the cheese.

“It is like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Van Nes said.

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Riverside Deaths

The number of cases reported by Monday totaled 74 in Los Angeles County with 23 deaths, 17 in Orange County with seven deaths, two deaths in Riverside County, three cases in San Bernardino County and six cases in San Diego County.

In Riverside, two deaths--one involving a stillborn female fetus and another a 4-day-old boy--were attributed to the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes , but health officials said there was no information connecting the deaths to cheese manufactured by Jalisco.

Manzoor Massey, director of health education at the Riverside County Health Department, said the parents of the girl denied having consumed Jalisco-brand cheese, while investigators have not been able to contact the parents of the boy to determine if he had consumed any of the cheese.

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In Los Angeles County, two women, identified only as a 20-year-old pregnant woman from the San Gabriel Valley and a woman from the San Fernando Valley, were reported to have contracted the illness over the weekend. Neither was Latino, as have been most of the previous victims.

“This is kind of what we expect,” said Dr. Shirley Fannin, associate director of communicable disease control for Los Angeles County. “We would expect new cases to continue at least two to three weeks, mainly because the incubation period after exposure is as low as two days and as high as two to three weeks.”

She said medical experts would be looking to see if the Listeria bacteria continues to strike people after that period.

Doctors at UC Irvine Medical Center said they suspect that an 11th baby, born at the hospital in Orange Monday morning, has been infected by Listeria. Doctors did not have test results Monday afternoon, but they started the baby on antibiotics anyway to fight off the bacteria, neonatalogist Jack Sills said.

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San Diego Cases

San Diego County has had at least six known cases of Listeriosis so far this year, but none have been linked as yet to Jalisco-brand cheese, according to Dr. Donald Ramras, county public health officer.

State Food and Agriculture officials on Monday also made public recent inspections of the Jalisco plant, which turned up what they considered only minor sanitation problems.

Following a Saturday inspection, state officials gave the plant a passing score of 85 out of a possible 100-point total, faulting the facility for such violations as a lack of warm water at hand-washing stations. The inspectors also found that vents at the plant were not screened, that windows in a packaging room lacked solid glass and that a greasy cable was improperly hung over a cheese-making vat.

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In their report, the inspectors also noted that some cheeses were not properly covered and that storage tanks were in need of repair.

Door Open

In a June 10 report, they found plastic strips covering doors instead of screens and a door propped open that was supposed to be closed. They also found an electrical cord slightly coated with grease hanging over a vat.

“It’s a super-clean place,” said Adolf Leibe, dairy foods inspector for the state Food and Agriculture Department, who said inspectors were stunned by reports linking Jalisco cheese to the deaths. “You could eat off the floor.”

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Also on Monday, Los Angeles supervisors received a report, addressing questions as to why over a month went by between the time officials learned of the outbreak of the disease and they informed the public. The director of the county Department of Health Services said he was seeking ways to speed up the removal from store shelves of food products that threaten public health.

Robert Gates said his staff did a “commendable” job in the investigation and resolution of the case, but added tahat he shares concerns that such problems be handled “in the most systematic and timely manner.” He said he has instructed his public health staff “to review the process and make recommendations to me on ways in which we can expedite our handling of these situations.”

Contributing to this story were staff writers Paul Jacobs in Sacramento, Marcida Dodson in Orange County, David Smollar in San Diego County and Rich Connell in Los Angeles.


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