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