The owner of Vulto Creamery, whose raw milk cheese has killed at least two people in a multi-state Listeria outbreak, had been getting positive results for the pathogen from his equipment and production plant for at least 20 months before he initiated a recall in March.

Inspections of Johannes H. Vulto’s cheese-making operation in Walton, NY, by the Food and Drug Administration in late February and early March showed multiple and long-standing food safety problems. Those violations are documented in an FDA Form 483 report issued to the company March 22 and obtained by Food Safety News this week.

Violations documented by inspectors included:

  • Vulto and an employee who had visible cuts on his arms, both reaching elbow-deep into vats of cheese to use their bare hands and arms to separate cheese curds;
  • The buildup of what appeared to be black and green mold on multiple pieces of equipment and surfaces in the facility;
  • Lack of temperature alarm systems for freezers, coolers and cheese storage rooms;
  • An admission by the owner that the company does not calibrate and never has calibrated the thermometers located in the cheese aging room and walk-in cooler;
  • Multiple plumbing problems related to blackflow prevention and drains; and
  • Insect strips overloaded with dead flies.

And, although Vulto was conducting regular swab tests of equipment and surfaces, a more than 27 percent positive rate for Listeria species did not induce him to conduct adequate follow-up testing after cleaning and sanitizing, according to the FDA inspection report.

Inspectors were in the facility on Feb. 28 and March 1, 2, 7, 13, 17, 22. Their work included a review of the Vulto Creamery records, which showed 54 out of 198 swab tests on equipment and the wall, floors, drains and other surfaces collected between July 2014 and February this year were positive for Listeria.

“You have not conducted an investigation to provide identification of the Listeria spp. to genus and species and you have also failed to identify its source or point of entry/harborage in your facility,” the FDA inspectors wrote in their report.

“A total of 10 of the 54 positive results were found on food contact surfaces between 10/30/2014 and 4/28/2015. You did not conduct microbial testing of finished products to confirm that your finished products were not contaminated with the organism found by your environmental testing program.

“… The procedure used for cleaning and sanitizing of equipment and utensils has not been shown to provide adequate cleaning and sanitizing treatment.”

Both the FDA and the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets have confirmed Listeria monocytogenes in samples of raw milk cheese made by Vulto Creamery. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention matched the “DNA fingerprint” of the Listeria in the cheese with that of samples from six people hospitalized with Listeria infections from Sept. 1, 2016, through Jan. 22 this year.

map Vulto Creamery Listeria outbreakAll six victims consumed raw milk cheese before becoming sick. Their ages range from less than one year to 89 years old. Two of them died.

Additional victims may be identified because it can take up to 70 days after exposure for symptoms of Listeria infection to develop.

The FDA notified Vulto about the positive results for Listeria monocytogenes on March 3, but the company did not publicly post a recall until March 7. On  March 11 the company expanded the recall to include all of its raw milk cheeses and suspended operations pending the outcome of the FDA’s investigation.

“The raw milk cheeses were distributed nationwide, with most being sold at retail locations in the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic States, California, Chicago Illinois, Portland Oregon and Washington D.C.,” according to the recall notice on the FDA website.

In addition to continuing to produce and sell raw milk cheeses even though there was Listeria present in the facility, Vulto failed to submit a “reportable food report” to FDA as required by federal law.

“Specifically, you were notified via telephone on 3/3/2017 that your firm’s Ouleout soft raw milk cheese product bearing lot #617 was found to be positive for Listeria monocytogenes, a foodborne pathogen, and that you would need to file a reportable food reported to the FDA within 24 hours,” according to the FDA’s Form 483 report dated March 22.

“At this present time, you still have not filed a reportable food report with the FDA.”

To view photos of the recalled cheeses, please click on the image.
To view photos of the recalled cheeses, please click on the image.

The man behind the cheese
Although he is listed as Johannes H. Vulto in the FDA report, the owner of Vulto Creamery refers to himself as Jos Vulto on his company website.

“Jos had been making cheese in his apartment for about five years, aging it under the Brooklyn sidewalk. He had never set out to become a cheese maker but after half a year of experimenting and favorable reception of some of his creations, he started to explore the possibility of starting a creamery,” according to the company website.

“He started construction of the creamery in 2010 and after some tragic delays, finally produced the first legal batch in 2012.”

Vulto is originally from Holland, according to a profile in the cheese industry publication Culture Magazine. He has not responded to requests for comment from Food Safety News.

“Vulto came to the United States in 1990 on a Dutch government–sponsored grant. For two years he was an artist-in-residence at P.S. 1, the famed contemporary art center in New York City, and by the time his grant ran out, Vulto had decided to stay,” the magazine reported.

To read previous Food Safety News coverage of the outbreak and recall, please see:

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