10-year deadly listeria outbreak linked to California cheesemaker

A listeria outbreak ongoing since 2014 that has killed two people and hospitalized 21 others has been linked to a California cheesemaker.

The manufacturer, Rizo-Lopez Foods, voluntarily recalled all of its dairy products, including 365 Whole Foods Market ricotta cheese, the Food and Drug Administration announced Tuesday.

The other affected cheeses are Mexican and Central American varieties sold by other retailers.

Rizo-Lopez also stopped production and distribution of the recalled foods while its own investigation continues.

The first illness in the outbreak was reported in June 2014, and the CDC had previously investigated it in 2017 and 2021. After a new illness was reported in December 2023, the CDC reopened the case.

Earlier efforts connected the listeria to queso and similar cheeses but could not conclusively determine the manufacturer.

In January, the food and drug branch of the Hawaii State Health Department found the outbreak strain of listeria in an aged cotija cheese made by Rizo-Lopez, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced this week.

A total of 26 people have been infected over the course of the outbreak, with 23 hospitalized, the CDC said. The outbreak has killed two patients, one in California in 2017 and one in Texas in 2020, according to the Associated Press.

The reported illnesses were spread across 11 states: eight cases in California; four cases each in Arizona and Colorado; two cases each in Texas and Tennessee; and one case each in Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.

The bacteria that make people sick, the scientific name Listeria monocytogenes, can cause fatal infections in younger children, the elderly, or people with weak immune systems. For other people, the bacteria can cause high fever, 
nausea, stiffness, headaches, abdominal pain and diarrhea, the FDA said.

Among the infected were two pregnant women and two newborn babies, as listeria can be passed on during pregnancy.

There was also one pregnancy lost as a result of the outbreak, though the CDC did not say whether that patient was one of the two aforementioned women.

Besides Whole Foods, the cheeses, yogurts and sour creams were sold nationwide under a variety of brand names, including Tio Francisco, Don Francisco, San Carlos, Santa Maria, El Huache, La Ordena, Dos Ranchitos, Casa Cardenas, Campesino, Rio Grande, Food City and Rizo Bros.

Among the patients the CDC interviewed between 2014 and 2022 who remembered the brand of cheese they ate before getting sick, three reported Don Francisco queso fresco or cotija cheese.

Consumers should dispose of the recalled products and clean their fridges, as listeria can survive refrigeration, the CDC said.

A trio of companies whose products contain Rizo-Lopez cheese also initiated voluntary recalls Wednesday. No illnesses or consumer complaints have yet been connected to these products.

Trader Joe’s recalled its store-brand products containing cotija cheese, including its chicken enchiladas verde, cilantro salad dressing, Southwest salad, and elote chopped salad kit.

Simply Fresh recalled its two packs of 20-ounce Rojo’s six-layer black bean dip, which contains Rizo-Lopez cotija cheese, with best-if-used-by dates ranging from Tuesday to March 22.

The dip was sold at Costco stores in Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Washington and Utah.

Fresh Creative Foods recalled Don Pancho chicken-taco meal kits, Don Pancho cilantro lime sauce, Don Pancho “everything” sauce pack, cilantro cotija and poblano caesar dressings sold at H-E-B, and cilantro dressing sold at Trader Joe’s.

In addition to H-E-B and Trader Joe’s, the recalled FCF products were also sold at Costco and Albertson’s.

Those products were sold in California, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Maryland, Montana, New Jersey, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington.

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