They came Thursday morning for the cheese at Bravo Farms. Specifically U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agents, with help from U.S. Marshals, who seized about 80,000 pounds of cheese including:
— Ninety-seven, more or less, 1.2 pound wedges of Gouda cheese, and
— Fourteen, more or less, 40 pound blocks of white cheddar cheese labeled “Sage, White Pepper, and Onion,” and
— All other articles of cheese in any size and type of container labeled or unlabeled except for pasteurized cheese curds.
U.S. Magistrate Dale A. Drozd signed the warrant for seizure of the cheese at the Traver, CA cheese plant and authorized the Marshals to execute the order. The Justice Department took the unusual step of naming the cheeses–not the cheese maker–as the defendants in moving the case from state to federal jurisdiction and impounding the cheese.
Last fall, Bravo was supplying raw milk Gouda to such retail giants as Costco and Whole Foods when 38 people in five states became ill with E. coli O157:H7. One person suffered hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a life-threatening complication that can cause kidney failure.
The outbreak was initially linked, and later confirmed, to be from Bravo Farms cheese sold or handed out as samples during a Costco promotion.
That forced Bravo into a costly recall, a temporary shutdown, and a decision to make only pasteurized cheese as it resumed sales to the public just a week ago.
But having its cheese seized by FDA is far from being Bravo’s only problem.
In the complaint filed with the Eastern District of California, FDA compliance officer Russell A. Campbell says Bravo’s “plant buildings and structures are not of suitable size, construction, and design to facilitate maintenance and sanitary operations for food manufacturing purposes.”
The FDA complaint goes on to say Bravo employees must travel from the processing area to finished product area without any way to prevent cross-contamination.
“Adequate measures under the conditions of manufacturing and handling are not being taken to destroy or prevent growth of undesirable microorganisms particularly those of public health significance, to prevent food from being adulterated …,” said Campbell.
FDA said Bravo’s equipment, containers, and utensils are not being kept from cross-contamination and inspectors saw pests, including numerous flies in the processing room and a rabbit in a room where packaging is stored.
Campbell also told the court that FDA’s environmental sampling found Listeria monocytogenes on a food contact surface inside the plant, and 15 of 24 product samples, including cheddar, Edam, Gouda and Jack cheese, tested positive for Listeria.
In addition, the positive samples of cheese made over a four-month period of time included one sample of cheddar that tested positive for O157:H7. “This sample was analyzed by FDA using pulsed field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) and found to be indistinguishable from the E. Coli O157:H7 strain associated with the outbreak,” said Campbell.
While the State of California imposed quarantine on all Bravos’ cheeses last Nov. 22 when the recall began, Campbell’s statement says, “Seizure of the defendant food is necessary to prevent further distribution of the defendant food into consumer channels.”
The federal court for the Fresno-Sacramento area also ordered forfeiture procedures be followed with publication of details of the seizure action and it has set up a July 13 scheduling hearing for all the parties involved. It’s likely, however, that all the seized cheese will be destroyed before then.
Marler Clark, sponsor of Food Safety News, is suing Bravo Farms on behalf of 11 people who became ill after eating the contaminated Gouda cheese.