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How the Estrella Family Creamery Raid Came Down

Last week’s seizure of all the cheeses and other food products from the Estrella Family Creamery was more by the book than “Gestapo-like.”

U.S. District Attorney for Western Washington Jenny A. Durkan’s office Monday released court documents leading up to the seizures, which were apparently carried out at around 5:30 p.m. Oct. 21 by U.S. Marshals and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agents.

The seizure warrant was signed under seal by a U.S. District Court judge on Oct. 20.

Lisa Elrand, FDA compliance officer, filed an affidavit that became the basis for the action.

cheese-making-featured.jpgSamples taken at the Estrella Family Creamery by the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WADA) on Feb. 1 and 9; and March 1 all “revealed the presence of Listeria monocytogenes (“L mono”) in the finished cheese, in the salt brine, and throughout the production and storage areas,” the FDA officer said.

“L mono is an opportunistic pathogen capable of causing the illness listeriosis, which can result in death, especially in aged, infirm, very young, or immunocompromised individuals,” she added.  ”As a result of WADA’s discovery of L. mono, Estrella initiated recalls of several cheese products on Feb. 10, Feb. 15, and March 5, 2010.”

Elrand said FDA inspected the Estrella Family Creamery, the small family dairy that manufactures and sells specialty aged cheeses from raw cow and goat milk, last Aug. 2. Inspectors collected various environmental samples, as well as finished cheese products.

FDA laboratory analysis found Listeria monocytogenes bacteria were present in processing areas and the aging room, especially an area known as “Cave 3.”  Investigators said cheese was being cut and wrapped in the cheese room where bacteria were detected.

Estrella tested its products from March to May 2010, and a March 2010 sample tested positive for Listeria, the company told FDA.

During another visit on Aug. 16, FDA took a sample of “Caldwell Crik Chevrette” made on April 27.  Estrella said that cheese was ready to be distributed, and it tested positive for Listeria.

FDA found a common Pulsed Field Gel Electrophopresis (PFGE) pattern, or “genetic fingerprint” for the Listeria bacteria that were collected in tests from February through August in both product and environmental samples.

“The presence of a persistent strain of L. mono in the facility over time is significant in that it demonstrates that sanitation efforts were inadequate to remove this pathogenic organism,” Elrand said in the affidavit.

The most recent inspection at Estrella came on Sept. 1.  The company shared laboratory reports for products that were contaminated with L. mono from May 28, June 15 and 29, July 8 and Aug. 30.

On Sept. 3, FDA asked Estrella to recall all its cheese products.  Estrella refused.

FDA issued a public warning about the risk of eating Estrella’s cheeses because of possible Listeria contamination on Sept. 4.

The FDA compliance officer said its investigators had observed numerous insanitary conditions at Estrella, including tape and peeling paint on the cheese press handles, flying insects and spiders on the walls and ceiling of the milk room vestibule and in the cheese processing room.

Because the warrant was sealed until served, owner Kelli Estrella was first to get the word out on the creamery’s blog on Friday.  ”Last night, ” she wrote, “at about 5:30 three cars pulled into the yard with the FDA and Federal Marshals, alarming our kids. They posted a seizure order that name all cheeses on the property.  This is serious, it could put us out of business.”

Early Monday, she wrote a longer post, accusing the federal agents of being “gestapo like people” who were polluting Estrella’s cheese caves with their camera, testing tools and “just their presence.”

“This year has been flat out brutal,” she added.

The federal government’s “basis for forfeiture” was the fact that the cheeses being held for interstate commerce were adulterated.

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Read Food Safety News coverage of the Estrella Family Creamery’s food safety-related issues.

© Food Safety News
  • Doc Mudd

    These manufacturers were made aware of the problem for the better part of this entire year. No progress at cleaning up to make safe product. Instead, now investing all their effort in hystrionics over finally being shut down before they killed anyone by sickening them with Listeria (hopefully that’s been avoided).
    No sympathy for these business people and their callous disregard for public safety.

  • http://www.graceharborfarms.com Tim Lukens

    Thanks for the article. The inspection process was over a reasonable period of time, allowing for correction. The PFGE showed that the same strain of contamination was present from the start to the finish, not only in the enviromental samples but also throughout the processing facility. And as noted in one particular aging room. It should be noted that Listeria is a pathogen that continues to grow in refrigerated conditions, so if it is present keeping products cold does not slow the growth rate, therefore the problem compounds until proper sanitation procedures are implemented to kill it.

  • http://smartculturekitchen.blogspot.com Michael Bulger

    You have to feel for their adopted Liberian children, though. One can’t help but think it would have been a better investment to shut the operation down until tests came back negative.

  • kevin bjornson

    Government has created the problem by outlawing the use of Hydrogen Peroxide (oxygenated water) or ozone (oxygen with an extra atom of oxygen, or O3) to sterilize milk.
    Instead government dictates the use of pasteurization,
    the heat of this barbaric process kills beneficial bacteria and vitamins.
    Raw milk also tastes better. Many people prefer raw milk products.
    This type of government is dangerous to human health.
    Unfortunately most voters are not well-versed in this type of arcane knowledge, so ignorantly support politicians who are clueless.

  • mjb

    Oh, no. Not another Ozone Nutter: http://noodlemaz.wordpress.com/2010/07/31/germ-warfare/
    By the way, any science-based types feel like going over to this blog to set the proprietors straight on this? They’re only publishing the Estrellas’ version of events, which leaves out, oh, 95% of the story: http://seattlelocalfood.com/2010/10/23/please-help-estrella-family-creamery/

  • RBJ

    I was surprised to read that all the Estrella children are Librarians. This seems to be a very narrow vocational focus in one family. If the business goes under, it will be very difficult for the these children to find jobs espcially in a small rural community- HOw many libraries can there be? I am saddened to think that this family may have to separate to survive. SOmething needs to be done to save the nuclear family!

  • Doc Mudd

    Heh, heh. Oh well, RBJ, the Estrella librarians still have plenty to look up and catalogue regarding food safety, safe manufacturing practices, maybe some microbiology and epidemiology. No end to the timely research this bookish family business could be doing for months, even years to come.
    Just need to get serious about their work, and especially serious their patrons’ welfare. That would be real job security, eh?

  • Dennis

    Oh wow… so much hypocrisy…
    Infectious research labs being moved to cattle slaughter country and no one says a thing. Aluminum being sprayed over everyone’s head – no one says a thing. Massive poisoning with salmonella via lettuce – no one says a thing. Bottled water being filled from faucets – no one says a thing…
    But some hypothetical string of bacteria that is supposedly “not-so-good,” but is not dangerous – BRING THE F@#$%NG SWAT TEAM!!!
    What is wrong with this?.
    Welcome to Democratic America! Better pay attention to S510! It’s coming to all of YOU!!!

  • Rose

    The cheeses made by the firm are award-winning raw-milk cheeses. No illnesses have been linked with the cheeses,the state Department of Health…….. Remember the place in Cali that was also Raided with guns drawn!!! for having RAW MILK PRODUCTS?
    http://www.examiner.com/health-in-dallas/california-organic-food-stores-raided-by-police-with-guns-drawn
    humm……. They act like it is crack cocaine or heroin!

  • Kevin Bjornson

    To call me an “ozone nutter” is rude; methinks the lady doth protest too loudly.
    The “noddlemaz” article cited was from what looked like someone’s personal blog, and had nothing whatsoever to do with the sterilization of dairy products. If you had bothered to read the article (as opposed to citing the first anti-ozone article Google brought to your browser), you would know that the article featured some ridiculous gadget for trying to sterilize hands with ozone gas.
    Breathing ozone is not a good idea. However that’s not what I advocated (which you would know if you had read my post). I advocated the use of ozone in a liquid. That’s a completely different type of operation and does not emit significant amounts of ozone into the atmosphere. There are ways of dealing with this issue.
    Trace amounts of ozone are not harmful, and are found naturally in many environments. Ozone dissipates quickly, since the extra atom of oxygen wants to break free and oxidize complex molecules.
    I refer readers to “Acres USA” magazine, which has featured many thoughtful articles on this topic.

  • SB

    I know first-hand that their Liberian children are also their farm workers. These childern have not been in school for several years. The family will say they are home schooled but I challenge any agency to produce records of required standardized testing results from these children. Can they read to grade level? Can they write at grade level? Can they think through problems and solve them? They rise early, work hard all day, and go to bed late. While the Estrella’s profess to be instilling a solid work ethic in their children, they have forgotten that they are CHILDREN and they deserve to be educated so that they can make their own way in the world. Now that the creamery is shut down, what do the kids have? This community and the government should be looking at what is happening in this home, not just on this farm. These young lives are worth more and are more important than any cheese. But yet they are invisible.

  • Will

    Wait a sec…6 children adopted from liberia working at a farm? Under what conditions? quote from their website “Together the kids are learning that hard work won’t kill them” ( i sure hope not!!) obviously the Estrella are providing them only with food and shelter but no money since they are “their children”… The way i see it is that it’s cheaper to “adopt” children from a poor country and let/make them work at your farm rather than hire workers. I would call this 21st century slavery.
    Am i the only one to see this?