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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Costco, say it isn’t so – The E. coli – tainted Bravo Dutch Style Gouda Cheese was not Raw, was it?

According to the FDA and CDC, as of Thursday, November 4, 2010, 25 persons infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7 have been reported from five states since mid-October. The number of ill persons identified in each state with this strain is as follows: AZ (11), CA (1), CO (8), NM (3) and NV (2). There have been 9 reported hospitalizations, 1 possible case of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), and no deaths.

Screen shot 2010-11-04 at 9.02.39 PM.pngBravo Farms Dutch Style Gouda cheese, (Costco item 40654) offered for sale and in cheese sampling events at Costco Wholesale Corporation (Costco) locations is preliminarily linked with an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infections. On the Bravo Farms website:

Dutch Style Gouda

Handmade in small wheels and hand dipped in red wax, it has a soft creamy texture that pairs well with many foods. This a traditional style Dutch cheese that we know you will love. Also available in square blocks for easy cooking and cubing for parties. (formerly Queso Bravo)

Ingredients: Whole raw milk,

culture, salt, annato & vegetarian rennet.

Aged 2 months

-Absolutely All Natural

-Made with Raw Milk

-No Artificial Hormones

-Vegetarian Approved

-Lactose Intolerant Safe

-100% Handmade

Really? Costco, a food safety leader selling raw milk cheeses? Did the consumers know what they were eating?

  • Jenny

    Note that the cheese was aged “2 months” (which translates to 60 days, the legally required aging minimum for raw milk cheeses). An aging period of 60 days supposedly kills off bacteria (including E. coli) in the milk, but it’s too long for soft cheese like Brie, which is why those are always made with pasteurized milk in the U.S.
    This really doesn’t shock me, since many mainstream markets sell aged raw milk cheeses, and they’re not even contraindicated for pregnant women. I imagine the E. coli in this cheese was not the result of their using raw milk, but some other source of contamination.

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  • Bill,
    At the end of your blog, I took your question (“Really? Costco, a food safety leader selling raw milk cheeses? Did the consumers know what they were eating?”) as more of an accusation than a question.
    As you’ve printed an ingredient list from the manufacturer’s website and the FDA has a longstanding labeling rule, it appears the obvious answer to your query is “Yes, if they read the label?”
    From the tone and content of this, it appears your campaign against raw milk has expanded to include raw milk cheeses. Is that true? How about all other products made from raw milk (e.g., soap)?

  • fred b

    If there is a new variant of E.Coli that can survive 60+ days of aging, I’d like to know about it. I eat “raw milk” cheeses that have been aged, and have never had any issues, but my consumption is based on the same assumptions made by the FDA – that aging kills off the bacteria.
    Sensationalizing this is not professional, Bill. If there is a legitimate health issue with this product and/or the government’s mandated minimum aging period, then we need to know about it. Making it a campaign point against Costco to influence public opinion, not so much.

  • Carl Custer

    Linda Harris at U Cal Davis had a good presentation three (?) years ago at IAFP on raw milk cheeses and the 60 day rule.
    There is a possibility that there is a STEC that will survive 60 days aging
    There is a probability that the cheese was under-aged
    There is also a possibility that the cheeses became contaminated after 60 days processing.
    We’ll know more later

  • To what extent did the e coli come from the sampling and handling? A lot more data needs to be gathered before we draw any conclusions about raw milk cheese, Bravo Farms, Costco or anything else.

  • Gern Blanstan

    Bill,
    I am begining to recognize that knowing food law does not mean knowing about food science. What if I told you that right now every grocery store in America and perhaps in the world is selling a raw meat mixture covered in moldly animal skin that is not cooked! People are even eating this! I bet many of them do not even know. What if I told you that I am describing Salami that is made from raw meat that has been dried and cured with salt and the casing is covered in an edible mold that helps flavor and prevents spoliage. I could talk about this stuff called yogurt too, how it is teeming with bacteria and microbes and they even market it directly to children! Say it isn’t so! Moldy cheeses, bacteria-filled childern’s foods, raw meat encased in moldy animal skin, and now cheese made with raw milk! It’s Upton’s Sinclair’s “The Jungle” all over again.
    Egad what is the world coming to?

  • Recent research has shown that aging only 60 days may not be enough to kill pathogens. It certainly seems to be the case here but time will tell. Here’s one of the dissertations: http://library.uvm.edu/jspui/bitstream/123456789/165/1/damicofinal.pdf

    When the illnesses are all caused by the same exact strain, I find it hard to believe the consumer or sampling method is at fault. Sampling should be done on the product in final packaged form and should be done as aseptically as possible. That means surfaces are cleaned and sanitized and everyone washes their hands etc before they handle the packaged product to place it in the sample bags/boxes.

    Confirmation has to be done with packages of UNOPENED cheese. When it hits the lab, the package or wax is broken and handled ASEPTICALLY. Every microbiologist / lab tech does this regardless if they work for FDA, USDA or a private lab. ALL labs have to meet specific sampling method criteria or they don’t get certified. The health department only samples open packages that come from a patient’s fridge to determine what food the infection came from so they can start focusing their investigation.

    The contamination probably occurred before Costco got ahold of it. Contamination can occur anywhere in the process but most likely it came from the cows that gave the milk since E. coli comes from cow poop. If a unopened cheese has E. coli in it, it was there before the cheese was dipped in wax or packaged in plastic. If handling contributed to contamination, then the it was poor handling of the cheese post-aging and prior to packaging that added the E. coli.

    Fermented sausages had to change their process (EX: adding citric acid to their sausages before aging) to make sure they lower pH enough to kill E. coli and they use pH is a CCP. I imagine raw milk cheese producers are going to have to adjust as well if they want to survive. They will have to find out what else they can do to kill these buggers off besides using just aging and pastuerization if raw milk cheeses are going to remain on the market.

  • touche – however, clearly something went wrong between cow and consumer.

  • Doc Mudd

    Enticing shoppers to sample risky raw milk cheese on an aggressive “Cheese Road Show” – now, that’s a major blunder on the part of Costco. Raw milk cheese is, by definition, a potentially faulty product from the git-go. Might as well feature inferior Chinese SUV tires while they’re at it.
    Many consumers, who in their right minds wouldn’t eat this silly risky cheese, trusted an attractive salesperson representing Costco and Bravo Farms…and some were sent home to perch on the throne for a couple of days. How embarrassing for everyone! Adds a new facet to ‘caveat emptor’.
    The entire episode, from foolish profiteering cheesemaker to toothpick-impaled cheese-sample-wielding salesperson was, well, pretty cheesy.

  • Additionally, there may be some other labeling issues. A cheese with what is described as a “soft creamy texture” cannot be Lactose Intolerant Safe. The softer and creamier the cheese, the less lactose that has been converted to lactic acid. This is why hard cheeses like, Swiss are recommended for the lactose intolerant.

  • aed939

    This article says federal officials suspect the cutting board:
    http://www.newsoxy.com/health/costco-cheese-15593.html
    Are they going after Bravo Farms because this was the only cheese sampled that was made from raw milk?

  • coli may be washed into creeks, rivers, streams, lakes, or groundwater. Food Wine Wholesale