E. coli that is infecting restaurant diners in Michigan matches bacteria found in recalled Grassfields Cheese products and has spurred public health officials to warn consumers nationwide because the cheese was also sold at retail stores and online.
Grassfields Cheese LLC of Coopersville, MI, issued a nationwide recall Wednesday of 20,000 pounds of its cheeses because of the E. coli. Whole Foods Markets has augmented that action, specifically recalling Grassfields Cheese products sold at its stores in 13 states.
Grassfields officials did not include a list of wholesalers, retailers or other any other entities that received the cheese in its recall notice. Federal officials are prohibited from revealing that information because of corporate confidentiality clauses in federal law.
Michigan officials provided an update on the investigation Friday, warning consumers to check cheese in their homes to determine if it is included in the recalls.
“Anyone who has recently eaten Grassfields Cheese products and is experiencing (E. coli infection) symptoms should contact their healthcare provider and their local health department,” according to the Friday afternoon update from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
The state health department is working with the state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), and local health departments on the investigation. The agriculture department’s lab tested Grassfields Cheese products and confirmed E. coli matching the outbreak strain isolated in samples from sick people.
“(The) departments are investigating an outbreak of six cases of non-O157:H7 Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli infections in Michigan residents from five counties: Calhoun, Kent, Livingston, St Clair and Wayne; a seventh case is from out of state. All six cases have been laboratory confirmed at (the department) and have the same of strain of E coli,” the state health department reported.
Illness caused by Shiga toxin-producing E. coli can include symptoms of acute diarrhea, bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and little or no fever. The illness usually lasts one week.
In some people, especially young children, the elderly, or those who are immunocompromised, a more severe illness, such as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), and even death, is possible. People with HUS have kidney failure and often require dialysis and transfusions.
The CSI of an E. coli outbreak
Using standard practices of epidemiology — which merge techniques similar to those used by police investigators and forensics experts — Michigan’s health and agriculture departments have been interviewing outbreak victims, conducting lab tests and compiling data.
As of Friday, public health officials knew that several of the outbreak patients reported eating meals containing Grassfields brand cheese products at multiple restaurant settings.
The first patient got sick March 13, with the most recent patient becoming ill on July 13. They range in age from 15 to 37 years old. One patient had symptoms so severe that hospitalization was required, but the patient has since been discharged, according to the Michigan health department.
“Our foodborne team works closely with (agriculture department), which has a Food Safety Rapid Response Team (RRT),” said state health department spokeswoman Jennifer Eisner.
“Once our foodborne team identified a suspect food vehicle after reviewing the cases, our RRT liaison conveyed the information about restaurant meals back to (the ag department) to first determine if the restaurants were using Grassfields cheese as an ingredient and second, to conduct a visit to Grassfields Cheese. A number of samples have been collected – both from restaurants and Grassfields. Further testing is underway.”
At least one sample of the Grassfields cheese contained bacteria matching the E coli strain found in the ill individuals, the state health department reported in Friday’s update.
How to identify the recalled organic cheese
All types and sizes of organic cheeses manufactured by Grassfields between Dec. 1, 2015, and June 1 this year are included in the recall.
They were packaged for retail sales, online sales to individual consumers and for bulk sale to be used by restaurants or repackaged by retailers.
Recalled flavors and varieties identified in the Grassfields recall notice on the Food and Drug Administration’s website are:
- Onion ’n Garlic;
- Country Dill;
- Lamont Cheddar;
- Chili Cheese;
- Fait Fras;
- Polkton Corners; and
The Whole Foods Markets recall
Whole Foods reports its stores in 13 states sold the recalled organic cheese. Those states are: Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin. Not all products were sold in all stores.
“The recall includes the following types of Grassfields Cheeses: Gouda, Onion ‘n Garlic, Country Dill, Leyden, Edam, Lamont Cheddar, Fait Gras and Polkton Corners,” according to the Whole Foods recall notice on the FDA website.
The cheeses sold at Whole Foods locations were cut and packaged in clear plastic wrap with scale labels beginning with PLU codes that ranged from 0206151 to 0206159. They have sell-by dates through Sept. 2.
Consumers are urged to not eat the recalled cheese. Discard it and throughly wash all containers, surfaces, utensils and hands that came into contact with the cheese.
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