During much of the 18 months it was in court, it appeared that the Clinton, MI-based S. Serra Cheese Co. was going contest an injunction against it brought by the U.S. Department of Justice in federal court in August 2014. But a permanent injunction has now been entered against the Macomb County company and its co-owners Stefano and Fina Serra. The case is closed. After the DOJ filed the complaint on behalf of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Detroit attorney John R. Monnich argued that FDA found only “non-pathogenic bacteria in the premises and on cheese production at S. Serra Cheese. “Non-pathogenic” by definition, according to Monnick, means that that the bacteria was incapable of causing disease. S. Serra Cheese also claims that FDA testing “further complicated the picture” because the agency took samples of cheese that was scheduled to be aged for 90 days or more when it was still fresh. The cheese company attorney made the argument that aging cheese for 90 days or more “neutralizes bacteria.” “Therefore the cheese that tested positive was not consumer ready and by the time it was consumer ready, the non-pathogenic findings would be be possible,” he said. “The impact of the FDA testing was further compromised because it tested cheese products that had fruit or vegetable matter — pepper cheese, cherry cheese — and it was never determined if the non-pathogenic bacteria was attributable to the cheese or the additive, which came from another source.” FDA officials saw the 2013 inspection findings at S. Serra Cheese Co. as being much more serious. In his declaration, FDA’s Obianuju N. Nsofar said no scientific support was provided for the company’s assertion that “aging cheese for 90 days more more neutralizes bacteria.” Nsofar said he would find no support for that statement in scientific literature. He said it was possible S. Serra Cheese Co. was referring to “FDA’s standard of identity for cheese made from unpasteurized, raw milk, which specifies that such cheese must be aged for at least 60 days.” But, he said, research has questioned the safety of cheese made from raw milk even when aged for 60 days. The standards exist to specify a process for making cheese from raw milk that must include an aging period. In the 2013 inspection, FDA found numerous insanitary conditions and practices, including:
- plastic trays being washed on the floor before they were filled with mozzarella cheese;
- raw milk being dumped on the floor in high traffic areas of the processing room;
- standing water on the floor; and
- the use of a hose to clean a table and floor with ready-to-eat provolone cheese splatter.
The soft cheese made by the company was at risk of listeriosis contamination, according to FDA. The court order involves a permanent injunction that remains in force for five years and requires S. Sierra Cheese Co. to immediately implement testing and laboratory procedures to prevent an adulterated cheese from reaching the market. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)