Jalisco Case Spurs Nationwide Probe of Soft Cheeses

Times Staff Writer

A nationwide investigation of all soft cheese products has been launched by the federal Food and Drug Administration as a result of a potentially deadly bacterial infection found in the Mexican-style soft cheese manufactured by a Los Angeles-area firm, the agency disclosed Wednesday.

An FDA order, issued on July 2, calls for samples to be taken "of various types of soft cheeses, not just Mexican-style cheeses," Emil Corwin, an agency spokesman, told The Times.

"It's due to the outbreak of contaminated cheese in California," he said in a telephone interview from the agency's Washington headquarters.

"We want to get other information on other manufacturers of soft cheese," Corwin said.

Corwin called the move a "survey" and said the FDA will examine some products from a broad cross-section of soft-cheese producers in each state. The action, he said, does not mean that the FDA has evidence of a problem with other producers of soft cheeses, such as Brie and Camembert, or with cooking cheeses such as hoop or fresh ricotta, which are normally made with pasteurized milk. But, he added, the government "wants (soft cheese) samples analyzed" anyway to make sure there are no signs of faulty pasteurization or of the potentially dangerous bacteria Listeria monocytogenes.

The bacteria, linked to more than five dozen deaths nationally, was discovered last month in cheese produced by Jalisco Mexican Products Inc. of Artesia. The company, under criminal investigation by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, closed down last month and its products were recalled.

Soft cheese producers do not constitute a large part of the cheese industry, which is dominated by manufacturers of such hard or aged cheeses as Swiss and Cheddar. Richard M. Kennedy, director of the Rosemont, Ill.,-based United Dairy Industry Assn., representing some of the nation's largest dairy interests, welcomed the FDA decision to sample the industry.

"I think it's a warranted action," he said. "I think they (the FDA) want to make sure in their mind that all soft cheeses are 100% safe."

But another industry official, who declined to be identified, said he thought the FDA action "is overkill" given the fact that only one firm--Jalisco--has thus far been implicated in causing any illnesses or deaths.

A second Los Angeles-area producer of soft Mexican-style cheese, the Cacique Cheese Co. of City of Industry, closed its doors earlier this month amid a product recall when Listeria bacteria was discovered in some of its cheese.

But on Wednesday, a top official with the state Department of Food and Agriculture said that, to date, scientific analysis shows that no deaths or illnesses can be linked to any products manufactured by Cacique.

"There is no indication at this point that any illnesses or deaths were related to any other cheese (firm) other than Jalisco," George Gomes, the agency's chief deputy director, told The Times.

Separately, Dr. Shirley Fannin, associate director for communicable disease control for Los Angeles County, said on Wednesday that local officials were wrong earlier this month when they said a new and equally dangerous strain of Listeria-- Type 1b--had been detected. Federal tests showed "they were actually Type 4b"--the bacterial cluster found in Jalisco cheese, she said.

Agriculture official Gomes added that the state was still investigating the Listeria epidemic. Inspections of California dairy herds thus far have shown no bacteria problems, leading state officials to conclude that the Listeria contamination "was not large," he said.

State agriculture officials also disclosed that another California producer of Mexican-style cheese, Ariza Cheese Co. of Paramount, voluntarily recalled its cheese products this month.

The recall, which lasted from July 8 through Wednesday on undated cheese mostly earmarked for Arizona, was prompted by FDA detection of possible pasteurization problems, a Food and Agriculture spokeswoman said. But the firm's products have been found to be "pasteurized and safe" and it has resumed normal operations, she said.

In the national investigation, FDA inspectors already have begun taking samples from California soft cheese producers, said Bob Sheldon, an official with the California Milk Advisory Board.

"I heard about it today," he said from his Modesto office.

Effect on Sales

Dairy industry officials theorized that the FDA did not publicly announce the soft cheese investigation because the agency did not want to panic the public and trigger a drop in cheese sales.

"It would scare a lot of people from consuming cheese," said the Milk Advisory Board's Sheldon.

In California, the nation's fourth-largest cheese producer, all cheese sales--not just purchases of Mexican-style cheese--have sharply dropped since the discovery of the disease-causing bacteria in Jalisco's products, according to Milk Advisory Board figures. Cheese sales were climbing at a 6% annual rate "and then for the last month suddenly went flat," Sheldon said.

Sales of Mexican-style cheese "are down 90%" since the Jalisco problem was discovered, he said, "but sales are starting to come back."

Contributing to this story was Times staff writer Jack Jones.

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