By: Sean McNulty
A New York creamery that sold raw milk and cheese laced with Listeria monocytogenes caused a fatal outbreak in 2017, sickening eight people and killing two. A federal court has shuttered the company in response.
Acting on behalf of the FDA, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York has entered into a consent decree of permanent injunction with Vulto Creamery on March 30th, 2018. According to a press release from the FDA, the decree stipulates that “defendants cannot prepare, process, manufacture, pack and/or hold FDA-regulated food products until they can ensure that L. mono is not present in their facility and their food.”
But that’s not all.
The business can’t make or sell milk or cheese until they comply with the conditions set out by the court. They need to hire an independent lab to test for Listeria, hire an expert to help craft a plan to prevent further outbreaks, and improve unsanitary conditions at the creamery. So, they have to do what they should have been doing in the first place.
Listeria is Not a Small Thing
Listeria monocytogenes can be deadly for the very young, the elderly, and the immunocompromised. Symptoms of infection range from flu-like symptoms to swelling of spinal tissue and the brain. Pregnant women who fall sick often go into labor prematurely or experience stillbirth or spontaneous abortion.
This Wasn’t the First Time Listeria was Found at Vulto
According to the Miami Herald, federal inspectors found Listeria and several health and safety violations at Vulto when they traced the outbreak back to the company in March of 2017. Internal safety checks found listeria on surfaces at the facility in 2014 and 2015, but the company did not test their finished products for listeria and stopped checking surfaces for listeria in April of 2015. Surfaces were cleaned and sanitized for listeria, but after the deadly bacteria re-appeared after cleaning the company continued business as usual.
Several soft and ready-to-eat cheeses were aged in an attic with exposed insulation and other debris. An employee with cuts and abrasions on their arms was observed sticking their bare arms into vats of cheese without washing up first, and the owner was seen doing the same. Ladles encrusted with rust were used to scoop milk for pH analysis; condensation was allowed to accumulate on the cheese press and drip onto the food preparation surface below; and fly tape laden with dead insects was hung directly over exposed vats of dairy products, according to the Herald.
Eight people in New York, Vermont, Florida, and Connecticut fell ill with listeria from September 2016 to March of 2018. All the victims were hospitalized, and the patients from Vermont and Connecticut died. One of the infected was a newborn baby.
According to the CDC, tests revealed a close genetic similarity between samples of listeria taken from the victims. That indicated that the bacteria likely came from a common source. Interviews with the victims and their family members indicated that the first six victims had all eaten or been exposed to soft cheese. Five of those victims had purchased cheese at stores that carried products from Vulto Creamery. Connecticut’s Department of Public Health visited the home of the deceased victim and found listeria bacteria in a leftover wheel of Ouleout cheese from Vulto.
Acting on that information, New York health inspectors visited Vulto Creamery and seized three wheels of Ouleout. All three had listeria bacteria that matched the genetic profile of samples taken from the victims. Vulto recalled all of their soft and semi-soft cheese products on March 7th, 2017. They recalled all of their cheeses on March 11th and agreed to destroy all the cheese in their inventory a week later. The cheeses, which were made with raw milk, were distributed nationally and sold in grocery stores across the country.
Owner Johannes H. Vulto admitted in court documents that he lacked the knowledge and understanding to eliminate unsafe conditions at his business. He reportedly acknowledged that he didn’t understand the importance of environmental testing, positive results for Listeria, or the need for a federal investigation. Instead, he offered “minor corrective actions.”
But his excuses are just that, excuses.
The Basis – Raw Milk
Before federal regulators shut the company down, Vulto made their cheeses with raw milk. Raw milk is similar to what you might buy at a grocery store, but it hasn’t been heated to kill pathogens – a process called pasteurization. Proponents of raw milk don’t just think that it tastes better than pasteurized milk. They also claim that it has healthy bacteria that boost the body’s immune system and that it retains nutrients which would otherwise be broken down by pasteurization.
Raw milk skeptics point to the risks involved. Without pasteurization, milk can harbor dangerous bacteria like E. coli, campylobacter, and listeria, all of which can cause severe illness and death. The CDC found that raw milk or raw milk cheese was responsible for 202 out of 239 hospitalizations from tainted dairy products between 1993 and 2006. Mother Jones reports that campylobacter from raw milk left a woman paralyzed in one instance. In another case, a seven year old whose parents switched him to unpasteurized milk with hopes of improving his allergies fell sick with E. coli instead. His kidneys failed and he ended up in the hospital on dialysis.
Raw milk isn’t illegal at the federal level, but it is illegal in 18 different states. And selling cheese or milk that’s adulterated with listeria is illegal whether the milk has been pasteurized or not. Anyone who suspects that they’ve fallen ill from tainted milk or cheese should seek medical attention immediately.