Are you looking for a tasty little cheese with an image problem?

It’s delicious in enchiladas, it complements black beans beautifully, and it’s a wonderful addition to salads. Unfortunately for queso fresco–that quintessential Mexican fresh cheese–it also seems to have a knack for attracting pathogens such as Listeria.

queso-fresco1-featured.jpgIf you go through the records for recalls over the past few years, you’ll find that each recall linked to a commercial queso fresco producer has typically resulted from contamination after the cheese was produced.  That isn’t to say abuses don’t happen.  Just as in any industry, the great peanut recall of 2009 is a clear example, there are unscrupulous producers but they’re rare enough to be remarkable. Of particular note is Peregrina Cheese Corporation.

The New York City maker of queso fresco as well as flan and other Hispanic food products seemed to have so many problems with hygiene they were forced to recall product six times in as many years. Things came to a head last year when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sought to put them out of business. Peregrina’s owners, Isabella and Javier Peregrina, were cited repeatedly by the FDA for “filthy conditions”.

Standing water on the floors of the factory, food transport equipment coated with dried crust from previous batches, and a dead rat on the premises were just a few of the many pieces of evidence cited by the FDA and the New York State Department of Health.  Feds filed for an injunction to prevent Peregrina from making or distributing any foods at all but with the help of a New York federal judge, the Peregrinas were able to enter a consent decree that allowed them to remain in business but with 16 pages worth of restrictions and commitments. They’re still in business.

A Culinary Staple

At Lucero’s Produce in Mission Market–a half-block long shopping arcade in San Francisco’s Mission District with red tiled floors and open bins of produce – a white, enameled display case holds several short rows of queso fresco, panela, crema fresca, and Honduran and Salvadorian sour creams, packed in plastic bags and lined up in short rows. At one of several tables in the middle of the arcade’s walkway, young, dark haired women chat and laugh over café con leche from the Peruvian café next door.

There’s a similar display of cheeses at the Lucky Pork Store a few blocks down Mission Street and in several other grocery and produce stores throughout the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. Outside Hispanic kitchens, many consider those fresh cheeses dangerous and unsanitary. Is that reputation deserved?

Those fresh cheeses are to Latin American cooks what cheddar and Swiss are to many non-Hispanic Americans. They’re integral to many deeply loved dishes and foods. While seemingly bland in comparison to aged cheeses, queso fresco is a crumbly, almost pure white, soft cheese with a complex salty flavor built on a subtle base of milky sweetness. Queso fresco, and its many relatives, offers a wonderful flavor and textural contrast to the spicy and rich flavors so often associated with Hispanic cuisines.

It’s no wonder Latino immigrants were so eager to reproduce it in their own kitchens in the United States as they began settling here. Unfortunately, that’s probably where many of the cheese’s image problems began, as well.

Bathtub Cheeses

“Bathtub cheeses” is what Catherine Donnelly calls them. Like many immigrant groups deprived of the culinary staples they love, they sought to produce those foods themselves, in their own homes, often enough in their bathtubs. Suffice to say, mistakes were made.

Donnelly is associate director of the Northeast Center for Food Entrepreneurship and the co-director of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, based at University of Vermont in Burlington. In addition to teaching food safety and public policy at UVM, she researches and writes extensively on Listeria monocytogenes, the bacteria most commonly associated with outbreaks related to fresh cheeses.

“I think the industry as a whole gets a bad rap,” said Donnelly on the phone from her Vermont office.  

Fresh cheeses such as queso fresco are particularly vulnerable to contamination, she said. They’re high in moisture, there’s no starter culture, and they have a very high PH. In other words, if made in the wrong conditions, they’re perfect breeding grounds for pathogens.

In large commercial operations, however, those conditions are highly monitored, said Donnelly. Three Californian cheese makers–Cacique, Don Francisco, and El Mexicano for example–run safe operations with “unbelievable standards of hygiene”. The average consumer should feel very comfortable and confident in buying their products, she said.

“The real risk of those cheeses comes from the illegally made, illegally distributed varieties,” said Donnelly.

The Abuela Project

In 1997, officials in Washington state were facing an epidemic of food poisoning. The state’s health department was alarmed by more than 90 cases of Salmonella Typhimurium DT 104 in Yakima County. The majority of people sickened were Hispanic and the median age of the victims was 4 years. Incidents of Salmonella Typhimurium infection had been high for a couple of years, especially compared to the rest of the state. In 1995, the county saw more than 15 cases while the state average was less than five.
The problem? Homemade queso fresco.

Investigators soon tied the outbreak to homemade queso fresco made with unpasteurized milk. It was sold under the radar from person to person. Knowing they were going to have a difficult time convincing Yakima’s growing Mexican community to give up a food that not only provided an inexpensive form of protein but a strong emotional connection with their roots, officials came up with a novel way to improve the situation.

Taking a cue from Colorado, Washington State University and the Yakima County Cooperative Extension Office began an outreach effort to the county’s Mexican grandmothers. The rocks upon which many families depended, the grandmothers–abuelas in Spanish–were the perfect conduits to teach improved cheese-making techniques to the community. They called their plan the Abuela Project.

Using a recipe for making queso fresco from pasteurized milk, based on a home recipe developed by the mother of one of the project’s organizers, the plan was simple. Teach the abuelas a safer method for making the cheese with the understanding that they would each teach 15 others the same techniques. Incentives for the grandmothers included free cheese-making equipment but the real key to the project’s success, according to a contemporary account of the effort, was the recipe. It produced a cheese that tasted close enough to the original that everyone who tried it switched over to the new technique.

In 1998, Salmonella cases in Yakima County plummeted to about half a dozen, none of which were related to unpasteurized milk or queso fresco. By 2001, more than 500 people had participated in the Abuela Project.  The outreach is still happening, said Gena Reich. Most recently, booklets and information have been sent to people in Arizona, North Carolina, and Texas.

“People were happy to make that change,” she said.

Reich is the eastern region manager for the food safety division of the Washington Department of Agriculture and served as the agency’s representative to the Abuela Project. She also, as it happens, has overseen two recent outbreaks of Listeria monocytogenes in her district, both related to queso fresco.

Outbreaks in Washington

February was a lousy month for the owners of Quesaria B
endito. The Yakima cheese maker was forced to recall three types of cheese after five people, including two pregnant women, were sickened with Listeria after eating their product. Two months later, another eastern Washington cheese maker, Del Bueno, recalled all its queso fresco after a customer became ill, also with Listeria.

No one died from either outbreak, although the babies of both women were born prematurely as a result.

“I want to say both of these companies have bent over backwards to do everything we suggested,” said Reich. Both Del Bueno and Quesaria Bendito use pasteurized milk for their products and both, as far as Reich is concerned, follow high standards of hygiene in their production. In each case, they were done in by seemingly small things that only serve to underscore just how careful a company must be to insure the safety of their products.

A recent expansion of Quesaria Bendito’s facilities resulted in a change in how workers’ boots were stored “and it was just walked in” said Reich.  In Grandview, 40 miles southeast of Yakima, Del Bueno’s owners had purchased a used refrigerator where investigators found the contamination that had caused their problems. The contaminant was nowhere else in the facility.

“it’s not at all about shoddy manufacturing,” Reich said. Until now, both companies enjoyed “perfect records” and both followed good handling practices. But the products they produce, as Catherine Donnelly in Vermont noted, are particularly vulnerable to contamination.

“It’s just so easy,” agrees Reich. “It just takes so little contamination to cause a problem.”

While Peregrina Cheese Corp. provided the worst-case scenario when it comes to problems with fresh cheeses, the home cheese makers in Yakima 13 years ago offer a clear illustration of what can happen when lack of knowledge about microbiology is crossed with casual production methods. Of course, it doesn’t end there.

Customer care for the product once it gets home is another issue, said Catherine Donnelly. The cheeses are pure as long as they stay sealed in their original wrapping. Once they’re out, however, they’re vulnerable to whatever conditions in which the customer might place them. If they’re left out in the open too long, or stashed in a less than sanitary refrigerator, they’re open to contamination.

But neither the home kitchens of family cooks or scandalous conditions of Peregrina Cheese Corp. before the law was forced to step in are typical of practices used by commercial fresh cheese makers in the U.S. Commercially produced cheeses from long-established producers are safe.

“It requires real stringency in the manufacturing environment,” Donnelly said. “The reality of the processing conditions couldn’t be more different.”