A man who owned a raw milk creamery behind the deaths of two people has been sentenced to probation.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Therese Wiley Dancks in New York sentenced Johannes Vulto on July 9 to three years probation, a $100,000 fine and 240 hours of community service. Vulto and his company pleaded guilty in March to causing the introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce, a misdemeanor, prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of New York said in a news release.

Vulto’s raw milk cheese was found to be the source of Listeria monocytogenes that sickened eight people, killing two of them in 2016. He could have been sentenced to up to a year in prison. According to a plea agreement, he agreed to pay a $100,000 fine.

According to court papers, Vulto started producing and shipping raw milk cheese from his creamery in Walton in 2012.

The Food and Drug Administration reported that swabs taken from the creamery repeatedly tested positive for listeria species between July 2014 and February 2017, according to Vulto’s plea agreement. Prosecutors said that raw milk cheese is 112 times more likely to cause listeriosis than pasteurized cheese.

In 2018, the federal court shut down the Walton, NY, creamery. Judge Sannes permanently enjoined Vulto Creamery LLC and its owner, Vulto, from any further manufacturing or distribution of food. 

Court documents say that in the aftermath of the deadly outbreak, federal officials concluded that Vulto lacked the knowledge and understanding to make corrections and become compliant with legal requirements. Vulto admitted there was much he did not understand, including the significance of environmental sampling, positive results, or the need for a root cause investigation. He offered only “several minor corrective actions.”

“L. mono is a serious health threat that can prove fatal,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Chad A. Readler of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “Consumers should be able to trust that the food they buy is safe, and we will continue working with the FDA to take action against manufacturers that employ substandard practices.”

At FDA’s request, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed for a permanent injunction in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York on March 19, 2018. The judge signed the order on March 30, and DOJ announced the action on April 2.

“The presence of this dangerous bacteria at a cheese manufacturing facility in Upstate New York is of grave concern,” said Grant C. Jaquith, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of New York. “We will continue to use all available tools to ensure that our food supply is safe and violations of laws protecting public health are addressed.”

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Vulto Creamery’s soft raw milk cheese was responsible for the only multistate outbreak of listeriosis from such a product in the U.S.

Five of the eight ill people in the outbreak were New York residents. A Florida resident became sick after eating the cheese while visiting New York. The outbreak involved one resident each in Connecticut and Vermont, and those were the two that died.

The recalls began when Vulto Creamery was identified as the source of the listeriosis outbreak. At the FDA’s urging, Vulto first agreed to recall its Ouleout cheese on March 3, 2017. Four days later, on March 7, 2017, Vulto expanded the recall to include all soft and semi-soft cheese. After further discussion with the FDA, all Vulto cheese products were added to the recall on March 11, 2017. It further agreed on March 17, 2017, to destroy all cheese in its inventory or that was returned in the recall, and did so on April 5, 2017.

Court documents shed new light on the outbreak investigation, including the many violations FDA found during its March 2017 inspection of the Vulto Creamery.

Investigators found the Vulto employees did not wash their lower or upper arms before submerging them in whey to stir and break up in-process cheese curds. One of those employees had multiple cuts and abrasions on his arms. Black mold was also found in various places in the cheese factory.

Other violations found by FDA included:

  • Failure to manufacture and store foods under conditions and controls necessary to minimize the potential for growth of microorganisms and contamination.
  • Ouleout raw milk cheese from two different lots was analyzed and found to be positive for L. mono.
  • Failure to perform microbial testing where necessary to identify sanitation failures and possible food contamination, as required.
  • Vulto test records show that they conducted environmental sampling only 20 times between July 28, 2014, and Feb. 19, 2017, and that 54 out of 198 swabs taken from various locations throughout the manufacturing facility, including food contact and non-food contact surfaces, tested positive for Listeria.
  • Vulto did not conduct an investigation to identify the species of Listeria and failed to recognize its source or point of entry/harborage at the facility.
  • Additionally, Vulto did not conduct microbial testing of finished products after finding positive Listeria on food contact surfaces to confirm that the products were not contaminated with the organism detected by the environmental testing program
  • Failure to use a procedure for equipment and utensil cleaning and sanitizing that has been shown to provide adequate treatment.
  • Vulto repeatedly found Listeria throughout the facility, even after re-cleaning and re-sanitizing.
  • Failure to store cleaned and sanitized portable equipment in a location and manner that protects food-contact surfaces from contamination.
  • Clean, sanitized wood boards used to hold RTE cheeses were stored in the facility’s attic with exposed insulation and other debris.
  • Failure to take necessary precautions to protect against contamination of food and food-contact surfaces with microorganisms and foreign substances.
  • Wooden boards used for aging are not appropriately cleaned and sanitized. Their uneven surfaces allow moisture and debris to collect and are a potential harborage area for filth and microorganisms. These wooden boards come directly with Vultro aging RTE cheese and are used for other cheese products.
  • Failure to construct the plant in such a manner as to prevent drip and condensation from contaminating food and food-contact surfaces, as required. Expressly, condensation dripped from the horizontal stainless steel cheese press bar directly onto the draining table below, on which molded cheese products are placed to drain the whey. Dripping condensate in the processing environment can potentially facilitate the movement of pathogens and cause product contamination.
  • Failure to maintain physical facilities in repair and sanitary condition sufficient to prevent food from becoming adulterated, as required.  For example, there was a heavy buildup of rust in multiple locations, including on white-painted vertical support bars with cheese presses in place. These bars are located directly over a draining table, and rust flakes are on the top surface of the drain table where molds of cheese are set to drain. The rust was also on a painted white metal storage shelf used to store cheese molds, other equipment, and utensils, as well as on a stainless steel storage shelf used to hold boxes of wrapped finished cheese products. Also, there was a substantial buildup of black mold in multiple locations in the facility, including the cement walls in the manufacturing room and washroom, where cleaning brushes and storage racks come into direct contact. The concrete floors in the manufacturing and cheese aging rooms were cracked and pitted, with moisture accumulating in the cracks and pits.
  • Failure to operate fans and other air-blowing equipment in a manner that minimizes the potential for contaminating food and food-contact surfaces. A fan in the attic, used to dry wood boards used for cheese aging after the boards have been cleaned and sanitized, had dirt and dust debris buildup on its spinning arms and face.
  • Failure to take adequate measures to exclude pests from the processing areas and protect against food contamination by pests. Specifically, a long piece of sticky fly tape, densely populated with dead insects, was observed hanging directly over exposed, uncovered RTE cheeses in the defendants’ cheese aging room.

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