FDA Announces Recall of Soft Cheese as Listeria Outbreak Sickens 7

In addition to 7 people in 4 states who have become sick after eating queso fresco from a New Jersey-based company, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has published an updated warning.

FDA Update: "Out of an abundance of caution, and due to the severity of Listeria infection, the FDA is expanding its warning to include all El Abuelito [ a New Jersey Hispanic foods company] brand cheeses until more information is known. According to the firm’s website this includes queso fresco, Oaxaca cheese, cotija cheese, and crema. The FDA is working with the firm to recall any additional products that could be contaminated and has initiated an on-site inspection of the facility. Updates will be provided as they become available," the agency wrote on its website.

This is in addition to the company recalling some of its soft cheese products after the FDA launched a multi-state investigation into an outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes infections.

El Abuelito Cheese, Inc., has recalled all of its queso fresco products with sell-by dates through March 28, according to an FDA press release. Those products sell under brand names including “El Abuelito,” “Rio Grande,” and “Rio Lindo.” The affected cheeses were distributed in 7 states: Connecticut, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

As of Monday, February 22, the outbreak had led to 7 illnesses and 7 hospitalizations, most of which were in Maryland (4 cases). The last reported illness was back on Jan. 22.

Listeria can lead to symptoms like headache and diarrhea, though the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that such cases usually go undiagnosed. In more severe cases of invasive listeriosis, patients can experience additional symptoms like stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions. Women who are pregnant are at risk of complications such as premature birth or even miscarriage.

The FDA first reported its investigation on February 12. At the time, 3 of 4 people interviewed by health officials had reported eating queso fresco. Five days later, the FDA announced that the Connecticut Department of Public Health had collected product samples of El Abuelito cheeses from a store where one sick person had purchased cheese. The health department’s analysis identified Listeria monocytogenes in samples of the company’s queso fresco, after which the health department undertook whole genome sequencing to determine whether the bacteria strain in the cheese matched that of the patient’s infection. On Feb. 19, the state reported that the strains were, in fact, a match.

In addition to announcing its recall, El Abuelito will cease production and distribution of the products, the FDA said.

Consumers who purchased affected queso fresco were urged not to eat, sell, or serve the products. The FDA noted that Listeria can survive in refrigerated temperatures and can spread to other foods or services. As a result, they said customers should be vigilant about cleaning and sanitizing surfaces the cheese may have come into contact with in order to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.

In a statement on its Facebook page, the company said it was working with the FDA to investigate the outbreak’s cause.

“For more than 20 years, El Abuelito has brought quality products to your home, always producing with the highest standards of hygiene and safety, in accordance with your trust and loyalty,” the company said.

The outbreak is the first significant Listeria outbreak of 2021, according to information on the CDC’s website, but it is far from the only outbreak in recent years. The CDC’s National Outbreak Reporting System, which tracks foodborne, waterborne, and environment-linked enteric disease outbreaks, lists a total of 71 Listeria outbreaks between 2009 and 2018, the last year for which data are available. Most of the 736 resulting illnesses led to hospitalizations (640) cases, and 118 people died.