A Listeria outbreak linked to soft Queso-style cheeses has turned deadly and spurred federal officials to renew their calls for consumers to throw out certain brands of cheese products.

As of late Monday, 11 people across four states have been confirmed infected from Listeria monocytogenes in the outbreak. One person has died and 10 have had symptoms so severe that they had to be admitted to hospitals, according to an update posted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), along with state health officials, are investigating the outbreak. Connecticut officials have confirmed the Listeria in samples of El Abuelito brand Hispanic-style fresh and soft cheeses collected for testing from a store where a sick person reported buying these types of cheeses. 

On Feb. 19, El Abuelito Cheese Inc. officials announced their initial recall of products. On Feb. 27 they announced the expansion of their recall to cover additional products that are manufactured or handled in the same facility as the Queso Fresco products linked to this outbreak, according to the FDA’s outbreak posted this afternoon.

Both the FDA and the CDC are urging consumers to check their homes for any of the recalled products. The FDA has posted a partial list of retailers that received the products.

“Consumers, restaurants, and retailers should not eat, sell, or serve any recalled Queso Fresco, Quesillo (Oaxaca, string cheese), or Requeson (ricotta) cheeses,” the FDA warned.

Recalled brands by cheese type include:

  • Queso Fresco: El Abuelito, Rio Grande, Rio Lindo
  • Quesillo: El Abuelito, El Viejito, El Paisano, El Sabrosito, La Cima, Quesos Finos, San Carlos, Ideal Brands
  • Requeson: El Abuelito, El Viejito

The FDA recommends that anyone who purchased or received any recalled Queso Fresco, Quesillo, or Requeson cheeses use extra vigilance in cleaning and sanitizing any surfaces and containers that may have come in contact with these products to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. 

“Listeria can survive in refrigerated temperatures and can easily spread to other foods and surfaces,” according to the FDA update. “Some of the recalled cheeses were sold in bulk quantities and could have been repackaged by retailers. 

“Ask your retailer if any Queso Fresco or Quesillo cheese you buy was repackaged from the cheeses recalled by El Abuelito. If you are unable to obtain an answer, do not buy it and throw away the potentially recalled cheese you have at home.

“If you are at higher risk for severe Listeria infection — if you are pregnant, aged 65 or older, or have a weakened immune system due to certain medical conditions or treatments — call your healthcare provider right away if you have these symptoms after eating any Queso Fresco, Quesillo, or Requeson cheeses produced by El Abuelito.”

Outbreak details
The first confirmed patient in the outbreak became ill on Oct. 20, 2020. The most recent confirmed illness was Feb. 14, according to the CDC update today. 

The true number of sick people in the outbreak is likely higher than the number reported so far, and the outbreak may not be limited to the states with known illnesses. Some people recover without medical care and are not tested for Listeria. In addition, recent illnesses may not yet be reported as it usually takes two to four weeks to determine if a sick person is part of an outbreak, the CDC reported.

The sick people range in age from younger than 1 year old to 75 years old. Ten of the people are Hispanic and six are female. Of 10 patients with complete information, all 10 needed to be hospitalized. Maryland has reported one death.

“State and local public health officials are interviewing people about the foods they ate in the month before they got sick,” the CDC reported. “Of the eight people interviewed, seven people reported eating Hispanic-style fresh and soft cheeses. Among the seven people, six reported eating queso fresco – two reported El Abuelito brand and one reported Rio Grande brand.”

About Listeria infections
Food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes may not look or smell spoiled but can still cause serious and sometimes life-threatening infections. Anyone who has handled or eaten any recalled products and developed symptoms of Listeria infection should seek medical treatment and tell their doctors about the possible Listeria exposure.

Also, anyone who has handled or eaten any of the recalled products should monitor themselves for symptoms during the coming weeks because it can take up to 70 days after exposure to Listeria for symptoms of listeriosis to develop.

Symptoms of Listeria infection can include vomiting, nausea, persistent fever, muscle aches, severe headache, and neck stiffness. Specific laboratory tests are required to diagnose Listeria infections, which can mimic other illnesses.

Pregnant women, the elderly, young children, and people such as cancer patients who have weakened immune systems are particularly at risk of serious illnesses, life-threatening infections, and other complications. Although infected pregnant women may experience only mild, flu-like symptoms, their infections can lead to premature delivery, infection of the newborn, or even stillbirth.

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