An E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that sickened eight people in four states last December led to the closure of Sally Jackson Cheeses, which for 30 years had crafted rustic rounds of raw-milk goat, sheep and cow cheese on a small farm in the Okanogan highlands of Eastern Washington.
But E. coli was not the only pathogen contaminating the Oroville cheesemaker’s highly prized products.
In addition to E. coli O157:H7, detected in samples of aged cow milk cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says the cheese maker’s aged raw goat milk cheese wrapped in grape leaves tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes.
Sally Jackson Cheeses was first notified about the positive tests for both E. coli O157:H7 and L. monocytogenes in a Jan. 5 report by Pacific Regional Laboratory-Northwest. The test results were included in a recently released June 13 warning letter from FDA.
The letter says that Listeria bacteria found on the floor of the cheese room was indistinguishable from Listeria found in the cheese, making it likely that “the pathogen was transported throughout your facility.”
“Any moist area, such as your cheese production area, can harbor L. monocytogenes,” wrote Charles M. Breen, FDA’s district director in Seattle. “The organism can grow at refrigeration temperatures.”
Breen also wrote that “raw milk is one of most frequent vehicles” for E. coli infection and that “E. coli O157:H7 has been implicated as the causative agent in outbreaks involving milk and milk products such as cheese. E coli O157:H7 can survive in highly acidic environment, refrigeration temperatures and saline.
“Aside from raw milk contamination, post processing contamination including cross contamination pose as a potential health hazard to consumers. Milk pasteurization has been shown to destroy the pathogen and the application of good manufacturing practices in the processing environment to ensure sanitary conditions will reduce the risk of food product contamination by this organism, ” he added.
In the warning letter, the FDA acknowledges that Sally Jackson Cheeses probably has gone out of business, but asks for update on its current operating status.
The demise of the well-respected cheese making company began last Dec. 17, when epidemiological investigations in Oregon and Washington linked illnesses in Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Minnesota to Sally Jackson cheeses.
The Jacksons agreed to recall their entire inventory of gourmet cheeses for possible E. coli contamination. By the following week, public health authorities had determined there was a genetic match between the cheese maker’s products and the outbreak strain.
Shortly afterward, owner Sally Jackson announced she was opting to close down rather than spend the estimated $12,000 or so to make improvements on her aging farm required by the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
According to the recent warning letter, an inspection documented “serious deviations” from Current Good Manufacturing Practices.” Sally Jackson responded to those inspections observations on Dec. 29, the warning letter states.
The FDA warning letter includes a list of comments based on the cheese maker’s responses, and says if she were to resume operations, she must document corrective actions. The list includes:
— employee training to ensure proper hand washing during cheese making
— cleaning to remove mud, manure, straw and wood-chip debris from floors
— repairing roof leaks, peeling paint and plaster, and pitted floors
— wearing suitable garments and changing out of soiled garments after milking or outdoor chores before entering the indoor processing areas
— replacing or fixing cracked cheese molds
FDA asked that Jackson respond to the warning letter, documenting any improvements if she plans to reopen. If the company were to resume cheese making without first taking corrective actions, Breen said FDA could take further steps, including product seizures and/or enjoining the firm from operating.