June 9, 2005
Queso fresco sold here illegally or made in homes without safety measures can cause fatal illnesses
By LORI RODRIGUEZ
ï Culprit: Unpasteurized queso fresco, a soft, moist, white cheese popular among Latinos.
ï Danger : Improperly made and handled queso fresco can carry potentially deadly bacteria, including ones that cause listeriosis and tuberculosis. Brucellosis and salmonellosis outbreaks also have been linked to queso fresco.
ï High risk: Pregnant women, infants, young children, the elderly and people with underlying health conditions are especially vulnerable and can develop illness within a few days or even weeks after eating contaminated cheese.
ï Symptoms : Initially those infected suffer fever, chills, nausea or other flulike symptoms; as the illness progresses, headaches, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance or convulsions.
ï What to do: Purchase and consume only store-bought cheese marked “pasteurized.” Avoid buying homemade queso fresco and cheeses that have been transported illegally from Mexico.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Food-related disease, especially among the immigrant population, has led to a federal warning about a potentially deadly form of queso fresco, a soft, white cheese that is a staple in Hispanic cuisine.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued an alert to consumers cautioning them that eating queso fresco made from raw milk or produced improperly puts them at risk of serious diseases caused by food-borne bacteria.
Federal officials have begun working closely with officials in Texas and other states with large Hispanic communities to step up enforcement against the smuggling of queso fresco from Mexico and illegal sale in the United States.
“We can only regulate manufacturers of food within our borders, but we’re trying to alert other officials in charge that a problem exists that can be tragic for consumers,” said FDA public affairs specialist Maria Velasco in Dallas.
Recent outbreaks of listeriosis and tuberculosis in Hispanic communities of North Carolina, New York, Washington and California were directly linked to consumption of queso fresco. Cases of brucellosis and salmonellosis also have been traced to the cheese.
Though Houston so far has been spared an outbreak, queso fresco is popular, especially in the constantly growing immigrant sector. FDA officials say this community is at particular risk.
“Food-borne illness is very underreported,” Velasco said. “But we know that Latinos, particularly newer immigrants of Mexican and Central American heritage, traditionally make this cheese at home using raw milk without pasteurization, which can be purchased from rural farms.
“Some just use it for personal consumption, but some sell it out of their homes or at flea markets and door to door. Others are illegally bringing queso fresco across the U.S.-Mexico border, hidden on their persons or in their cars and all kinds of other crazy places, and then they’re selling it.”
Even cheese made from pasteurized milk can develop health-threatening bacteria if it is not kept refrigerated or is improperly handled, which is often the case with smuggled queso fresco. “It’s about times and temperatures,” Velasco said.
Cases in pregnant women
In New York, city and federal officials announced earlier this year that one infant had died and dozens of adults had contracted tuberculosis through the consumption of queso fresco. In North Carolina this year and last, 12 Hispanics were infected with listeriosis after eating the cheese, including 11 pregnant women. These infections resulted in five stillbirths, three premature deliveries and two infected newborns.
“We’re telling pregnant women just to stay away from queso fresco made with raw milk or brought over from Mexico. She should not consume anything except a grocery store-purchased, U.S.-manufactured cheese with a label that assures it is pasteurized,” Velasco said.
“If you think you’ve eaten the dangerous kind of cheese and may be at risk of infection, go see your doctor. A woman may feel OK and not exhibit any symptoms, but bacteria could be harming her unborn fetus.”
In the mid-1980s, a nationwide epidemic of listeriosis was traced to contaminated queso fresco improperly produced by major Mexican cheese makers in the United States. Despite panicked recalls and mandated plant closings, dozens of deaths and stillborns were traced to the consumption of contaminated cheese. Most were in Southern California, but other cities and states, including Houston and Texas, also had victims.
Houston Health Department spokeswoman Kathy Barton said the city epidemiology program since has typically recorded fewer than 20 cases a year.
“Most often, the source is unpasteurized raw cheese. I can’t remember ever seeing a case from cheese coming out of a commercial store. It’s either homemade here or homemade in Mexico and brought up here.”
Devotees say the homemade and Mexico-produced cheeses usually surpass commercial U.S. products’ texture and flavor.
“It’s so good that a lot of people just take the risk. That’s the problem,” said FDA spokeswoman Liselle DeGrave.
Sprinkled on beans, tacos and enchiladas, varieties of queso fresco such as queso panela, asadero, blanco and ranchero are as ubiquitous as they are essential in authentic Mexican cuisine. But there are palatable alternatives to the raw milk products that adhere to traditional Mexican cheese-making techniques and also are properly manufactured and pasteurized.
Fighting illegal sales
Maria Castro, founder of the 35-year-old Castro Cheese Co. on Campbell, uses decades-old family recipes to produce an extensive line of well-known queso frescos widely marketed under the La Vaquita label. A self-described “farmer’s daughter” originally from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Castro has parlayed childhood cheese-making lessons into the largest Texas-based producer of Mexican-style cheese.
For the past few years, Castro has been waging a one-woman war against sales of unpasteurized cheese brought from Mexico and sold illegally here. She has hired a private investigator to find a person she says is buying homemade queso fresco from ranches in Vera Cruz, packaging and selling it under her La Vaquita brand in mercados, carnecerias and other nonmainstream Texas markets.
“They bring the cheeses in illegally from Mexico or make them here in their kitchens, and then they sell them. I’m very interested in catching them, and the reason is not because I’m greedy,” Castro said.
“It’s just dangerous. This is not the first time outbreaks have been a problem. It’s happened in the past, and it will happen again if officials don’t do something about it.”