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CDC is reporting that 14 persons have been infected with a single strain of Listeria monocytogenes after consuming Ricotta salata cheese imported from Italy. Three people are dead, and all 14 of the outbreak victims identified so far were hospitalized.

Listeriosis contributed to at least one of the deaths.

Outbreak victims were reported from 11 states and the District of Columbia as follows: California (1), Colorado (1), District of Columbia (1), Maryland (3), Minnesota (1), Nebraska (1), New Jersey (1), New Mexico (1), New York (1), Ohio (1), Pennsylvania (1), and Virginia (1). Four of the victims were related to pregnancy; two of those four were newborns. The three deaths occurred in Nebraska, Minnesota and New York; the Minnesota death was not attributed to the victim’s Listeria infection.

Except for the four pregnancy-related illnesses, outbreak patients range in age from 56 to 87 years, with a median age of 79 years. Illnesses were diagnosed as early as March 28, 2012 and as recently as August 30, 2012.

CDC Epi Curve for Listeria monocytogenes outbreak linked to imported Italian cheese

Twelve of the 14 persons interviewed reported having consumed a soft cheese. No one cheese was identified by the majority of ill persons, and six of the interviewees reported having eaten cheese that was cut and repackaged at a retail location. Epidemiological and traceback actions led investigators to Frescolina brand ricotta salata cheese distributed in the USA by Forever Cheese, Inc. FDA has identified the outbreak strain of Listeria monocytogenes in a sample of the uncut cheese.

Yesterday, Forever Cheese recalled all Ricotta Salata Frescolina brand cheese bearing Lot #T9425 and/or production code 441202. The cheese was sold to distributors for retailers and restaurants in California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington between June 20 and August 9, 2012. The product was supplied to supermarkets, restaurants and wholesale distributors. Some of the cheese was sold in QFC stores in Oregon and Washington State.

The recalled cheese was “matured and packed by” Fattorie Chiarappa srl, Via Dell’Ulivo, 5 Conversano, Italy, and was manufactured from pasteurized sheep’s milk, whey and salt.

Based on the results of patient interviews, CDC and FDA are considering the possibility that cross-contamination of other cheeses may have occurred through cutting boards and utensils. This is exactly what happened in Canada’s province of Quebec in 2008, resulting in 22 cases of listeriosis, three of them in newborn infants.

CDC offers the following Advice to Consumers:

Contaminated ricotta salata cheese has made people sick.

  • CDC recommends that consumers not eat imported Frescolina brand ricotta salata cheese. This is especially important for pregnant women, persons with weakened immune systems, and older adults.
  • Even if some of the cheese has been eaten without anyone becoming ill, the rest of the cheese should be disposed of immediately.
  • When in doubt, throw it out. (See disposal recommendations below)

How do I recognize the contaminated cheese?

  • The recalled cheese is labeled Frescolina brand ricotta salata cheese. It is a product of Italy. Consumers should consult with their retailer if they have questions about the origin of cheese.
  • Be aware that the recalled cheese has a 4 month shelf life, so contaminated cheese may still be in consumer’s refrigerators and may still be for sale in stores.
  • Ricotta salata cheese is often served crumbled or grated as an ingredient in some dishes.
  • Ricotta salata is a salty white cheese made from pasteurized sheep’s milk. Note: It is not the same as ricotta cheese, which is a very soft cheese often sold in plastic tubs.

Contaminated cheese may still be in consumers’ homes.

Listeria can grow in cut cheese at room and refrigerator temperatures. Listeria can also spread to other cheeses cut and served on the same cutting board or stored in the same area.

Follow these simple steps if recalled cheese is or was in your home:

  • Dispose of cheese in a closed plastic bag placed in a sealed trash can. This will prevent people and animals from eating it.
  • Wash the cheese drawer and other areas where the cheese was stored in the refrigerator with hot water and soap. Sanitize the area with a solution of one tablespoon of chlorine bleach to one gallon of hot water.
  • Wash cutting boards, surfaces, and utensils used to cut, serve, or store cheese. If possible, use a dishwasher; otherwise, use hot water and soap, followed by sanitizing with a dilute bleach solution described above.
  • Wash hands with warm water and soap following the cleaning and sanitation process.

Who is most at risk?

  • Listeriosis primarily affects pregnant women and their newborn infants, persons with weakened immune systems, and older adults.
  • Persons who think they might have become ill from eating contaminated cheese should consult their doctor immediately. People can sometimes develop listeriosis even up to two months after eating contaminated food.
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