The Food and Drug Administration has developed a new strategy to improve the safety of soft Queso Fresco cheeses in response to several outbreaks traced to such cheese.
In 2021 the FDA investigated a deadly Listeria monocytogenes outbreak linked to El Abuelito Cheese products that sickened at least 13 people in four states and killed one person in Maryland.
Additionally, from 2014 to 2017 there were outbreaks of infections caused by Listeria in the United States that were linked to the consumption of soft Queso Fresco type (QFT) cheeses. From 1998 to 2014 officials identified a dozen outbreaks of listeriosis in the United States that were associated with soft cheeses made from pasteurized milk. Most were related to soft Queso Fresco-type cheeses.
The outbreaks have frequently been traced to cheeses from raw, unpasteurized milk. However, some of the outbreaks have been traced to cheese made from pasteurized milk that was contaminated when the cheese was being produced.
To address the problems associated with soft, Queso Fresco-type cheeses, the FDA has developed measures to provide public health interventions.
“Food safety is a shared responsibility. Producers of QFT are responsible for producing safe food, including satisfying applicable food safety requirements,” according to the FDA’s announcement.
“In addition, the FDA believes it is imperative that we share data, knowledge, and information, and work collaboratively to enhance food safety. Based on the review of the outbreak findings, historical data, and engagements with industry and other stakeholders, the agency has identified measures that can be taken to reduce future incidences of foodborne illness related to Queso Fresco-type soft cheeses, including:
- Prioritizing inspections with environmental sampling at soft fresh QFT manufacturing firms.
- Engaging with state partners to increase sampling of QFT cheese at retail operations in the U.S. for the presence of Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. This could result in potentially contaminated products being recalled and removed from the market.
- Develop and distribute a publication that outlines the potential causes of recent listeriosis outbreaks in soft cheeses and a fact sheet that describes requirements for Listeria monocytogenes control in cheese manufacturing.
- Collaborate with states and other food safety partners to disseminate training and education materials to producers and consumers of soft fresh QFT.
By implementing these activities, the FDA hopes to:
- Ensure that the cheese industry is aware of regulatory requirements applicable to the production of QFT.
- Enhance compliance with the applicable regulatory requirements by producers of QFT.
- Verify through inspections and sampling that QFT producers adhere to those requirements.
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