Health officials have confirmed that cheese sauce sold at a gas station in California was contaminated with the same type of botulism toxin as victims of a deadly outbreak, but there are no plans for a recall.

Although the California Department of Public Health did not name the brand of the cheese sauce, an inspector from the Sacramento County Health Department reported impounding “four bags of Gehls (sic) cheese sauce” from the Valley Oak Food & Fuel gas station in Walnut Grove, CA, on May 8.

Gehls cheese sauceTen people have been confirmed in the outbreak of botulism poisoning, including Martin Galindo-Larios Jr., 37, of Antioch, CA, who died Thursday, according to the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s office. All nine of the other victims remain hospitalized.

“We are representing six of the victims, including a 16-year old and a 17-year old, and all of them are still hospitalized and on ventilators,” said Seattle food safety attorney Bill Marler.

Botulism poisoning causes paralysis that often includes muscles necessary for breathing, requiring patients to be placed on ventilators.

Marler said there is concern that the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, which produces the toxin that causes botulism poisoning, was present in the cheese sauce when the gas station received it. If that is the case, other foodservice operators could have received contaminated cheese.

Officials with Gehl Foods LLC of Germantown, WI, did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Food Safety News. In a statement provided to the Sacramento Bee newspaper, Gehl officials said the Food and Drug Administration had notified them of the situation.

“We immediately retested samples from the relevant lot of cheese, and it remains clear of any contamination,” the Gehl’s officials said, according to the Sacramento newspaper.

“To ensure the integrity of those test results, we also sent multiple samples to an independent lab, which confirmed our findings. Gehl’s facilities remain safe for food production and all of our food samples continue to test negative for any contaminants. There is no recall of Gehl’s nacho cheese product.”

The investigation
An FDA spokeswoman confirmed Monday that the agency is assisting public health officials at the state and local levels in California with the outbreak investigation, but she did not provide any details.

California’s Department of Public Health (CDPH) reported state officials don’t think there is an ongoing risk to the public.

Valley Oak Food and Fuel doors“The nacho cheese sauce was removed from sale on May 5. CDPH believes there is no continuing risk to the public,” according to the department’s Monday afternoon statement on the outbreak.

“To protect patient privacy, CDPH is not sharing information about the patients affected in this botulism outbreak, their conditions or the four counties that have reported cases.”

California public health officials requested botulism antitoxin for all 10 outbreak victims through the CDC’s quarantine stations in California, according to a spokeswoman with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We are not aware of any botulism cases linked to this outbreak outside of California,” the CDC spokeswoman said Monday afternoon.

Advice for the public
Anyone who ate cheese sauce from the Valley Oak Food & Fuel gas station in Walnut Grove, CA, in recent weeks and developed symptoms of botulism poisoning should immediately seek medical attention, according to the California health department.

Family photos of Lavina Kelly before she contracted botulism poisoning, left, and as she is now, partially paralyzed and on a ventilator in an intensive care unit. Photos courtesy of family members
Family photos of Lavina Kelly before she contracted botulism poisoning, left, and as she is now, partially paralyzed and on a ventilator in an intensive care unit. She is one of 10 confirmed victims. One has died.
Photos courtesy of family members

State officials are also urging health care providers to be on the lookout for people with symptoms, which include:

  • Double or blurred vision;
  • Drooping eyelids;
  • Slurred speech;
  • Difficulty swallowing’
  • Dry mouth; and
  • Muscle weakness.

“Foodborne botulism is a rare but serious paralytic illness caused by a nerve toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum,” according to the California health department.

“The toxin that causes botulism can be found in foods that are not properly processed or stored. It is odorless and colorless, so it is not possible to tell if a product is contaminated just by looking at it.”

‘Served more than a million times a day’
Promoted on the Gehl Foods LLC website as being “served more than a million times a day,” Gehl’s brand cheese sauce is available in a variety of packaging styles for foodservice and other customers.

The cheese sauce available in “pouches” are designed for use in dispensers and in trays on steam tables, according to the company’s website.

The bags for dispensers take four to six hours to reach the serving temperature of 140 degrees F, and can be used for up to five days as long as the dispenser heat is on continuously “for food safety.” The bags of cheese sauce for steam tables can be used for up to six hours, if held at a safe temperature. The shelf life of both package styles is 12 months from the date of manufacture.

“Aseptic processing allows us to protect product quality without preservatives,” according to the Gehl’s website. “Our secret is an advanced ‘aseptic’ process that locks in freshness without refrigeration.

“Gehl Foods’ Aseptic processing means food and beverages achieve sterility through a rapid process of heating and cooling, producing a commercially sterile product that won’t spoil. Packaging materials are pre-sterilized, then filled with sterile ingredients and sealed, all in an airtight sterile environment and allow a 12- to 18-month ambient shelf life without compromising taste.”

Editor’s note: Bill Marler is publisher of Food Safety News.


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