A sample of Sally Jackson raw milk cheese has been confirmed to be a genetic match with an outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7 that has sickened 8 people and led to a nationwide recall.
Dr. William Keene, senior epidemiologist with the Oregon Public Health Services Acute and Communicable Diseases Program, said Monday that the results of lab tests on the cheese have been culture confirmed, and are indistinguishable by pulse-field gel electrophoreses (PFGE) from the 8 illnesses in Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Minnesota.
On Dec. 17, Sally Jackson Cheese of Oroville, WA, which for 30 years has hand-crafted rustic cheese using unpasteurized milk from its own sheep, cows, and goats, recalled its entire inventory of gourmet cheese because it might be contaminated by E. coli.
Investigators with the Oregon Public Health Department, Washington State Department of Agriculture, the Washington Department of Health and Public Health-Seattle and King County had earlier alerted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that 8 people had been identified with the same strain of E. coli.
It was sharp detective work on the part of the investigators who found the link to the cheese.
During interviews with health authorities, none of those sickened had mentioned Sally Jackson cheese. But based on invoices they still had on hand, some had eaten cheese at a restaurant where Sally Jackson cheese might have been on the menu, and some had purchased some unknown cheese at a store that might have had Sally Jackson in stock. Another had been at wedding where cheese was served and where “fancy cheese was made nearby,” Keene said.
With little more than that to go on, the investigators kept narrowing the possibilities until they finally honed in on Sally Jackson cheese as the most likely contaminated food source.
“I can’t recall any other outbreak we’ve ever worked on with a zero percent recall by cases,” Keene said. “Even after we deduced the name and asked them directly about it, it didn’t help—-no recall.”
Since the recall was initiated, the wedding cheese was confirmed to have been the Sally Jackson brand, but to date that remains the only case with a direct history of consumption.
Washington State Department of Agriculture had been working with Sally Jackson for months to correct numerous sanitation problems at the remote dairy, which led the FDA to warn that “all Sally Jackson cheeses on the market should be avoided because the products were processed under conditions that create a significant risk of contamination.”