Washington and Oregon have been the site of two recent cheese recalls due to contamination by listeria monocytogenes. The first was announced earlier this month by the Estrella Family Creamery of Montesano, Washington. And the second was announced yesterday by Queserita Bendita, a Yakima area cheese producer. Interestingly, not all of the recalled cheeses were made from unpasteurized milk, meaning that the production environment was contaminated.
There are no recognized illnesses linked to the earlier recall, but at least five people are known to have been sickened, and hospitalized, as a result of consuming the recalled Queserita Bendita cheeses. At least two of these people were pregnant women, and both gave birth prematurely due to fetal distress.
Regarding listeria and pregnancy, the FDA issues strong cautions about the consumption of soft-cheeses made from unpasteurized, or raw, milk products:
Most of the time, pregnant women who are infected with listeriosis don’t feel sick. However, they can pass the infection to their unborn babies without even knowing it. That’s why prevention of listeriosis is very important. In any case, if you experience any of the above symptoms, see your doctor or health-care provider immediately.
During the first trimester of pregnancy, listeriosis may cause miscarriage. As the pregnancy progresses to third trimester, the mother is more at risk. Listeriosis can also lead to premature labor, the delivery of a low-birth-weight infant, or infant death. Fetuses who suffer a late infection may develop a wide range of health problems, including mental retardation, paralysis, seizures, blindness, or impairments of the brain, heart, or kidney. In newborns, L. monocytogenes can cause blood infections and meningitis.
The FDA also highlights the risks of consumption to pregnant hispanic women, who are particularly susceptible due to culturally-based greater consumption of soft-cheeses:
Studies show that pregnant Hispanic women may have a higher incidence of listeriosis than pregnant non-Hispanic women. This is most likely because they might make and eat homemade soft cheese and other traditional foods made from unpasteurized milk. "Queso fresco"- a traditional homemade cheese, prepared from unpasteurized milk and widely consumed by Hispanics – has led to miscarriages, death of newborns, and premature delivery caused by L. monocytogenes.
To prevent the risk of listeriosis, Hispanic pregnant women should not eat homemade soft cheeses and other traditional foods made from unpasteurized milk. Like all other pregnant women, they should follow the food safety precautions outlined below.
Notably, however, the cheeses included in the Queseria Bendita’s recall are not made with unpasteurized ingredients. The company actually uses pasteurized products, which means that the listeria bacteria was present at the processing facility. The bacteria may have been in the facility due to fecal contamination of food products by an infected food worker, or by introduction of the bacteria to the environment on a contaminated ingredient.