Vendors Selling Illegal Cheese Face Fine
September 16, 2005
HOUSTON — Houston health officials are bracing for an outbreak of an illness that can cause miscarriages, babies to be born with life-threatening infections and severe intestinal problems. The main source is illegally imported meat and dairy products. KPRC Local 2’s hidden cameras caught one man selling the illegal products, but the problem goes far beyond one street corner vendor.
The Troubleshooters’ hidden cameras caught Guillermo Ramirez trolling for customers in the parking lot of a northwest Houston grocery store. He was selling illegally imported cheese and sausage out of the back of his pickup truck. It didn’t take him long to find two customers. Ramirez was so happy with the sale that he kissed the money.
Local 2’s Robert Arnold questioned him.
“You bought this in Mexico?” Arnold asked. “You’re not allowed to sell this in the United States.”
The cheese, Queso Fresco, tested positive for the bacteria that causes listeriosis — a severe intestinal illness.
Inside the truck, the Troubleshooters found a cooler full of Queso Fresco. All of it was made in Vera Cruz and is illegal to sell in the United States. Ramirez said he did not know that.
“You didn’t know it’s illegal to sell this in the United States?” Arnold said.
Soon after Local 2 started asking questions, both city and state inspectors swooped in and condemned all of the food. Samples were taken and sent to a state lab for testing. Ramirez was cited for running a mobile food unit without a permit.
The tests not only confirmed the cheese Ramirez sold was filled with the bacteria that causes listeriosis, health officials were able to trace the products Ramirez sold back to an outbreak of listeriosis in Houston last year.
“(It affects) the elderly, infants and pregnant women. It is a health crisis,” said Kathy Barton, with the Houston Health Department.
Barton said the city is again bracing for an outbreak of listeriosis because of vendors like Ramirez.
“We are seeing more than we expect to see,” Barton said.
Houston usually sees eight listeriosis cases a year. City health officials have seen eight cases in the past two months.
Barton said the problem is getting the word out to Houston’s immigrant population.
Queso Fresco is a staple of Mexican dishes and many people buy the foreign-made cheese because it’s what they grew up with.
Barton said she hopes people will now realize that just because a product comes from home does not mean it’s safe.
The city said another problem is the penalty for selling the illegal products amounts to a “slap on the wrist.” The fine is between $50 and $2,000.
While listeria is not usually fatal and can be treated with antibiotics, health officials warn if you buy any foreign-made dairy product, make sure it is pasteurized and bears the USDA stamp of approval.