A Cheese-Linked Listeria Outbreak Sent Multiple People To The Hospital

America is a "cheese please" nation, embracing a wide variety of everyday cheddars, mozzarella, gouda, Swiss, Monterey Jack, and dozens of imported or specialty cheeses available in supermarket bins and displays. With 600 varieties from U.S. cheesemakers alone, per Think USA Dairy, that's a whole lot of cheese. Unfortunately, that same abundance quickly becomes a liability when cheese-related bacterial illnesses strike, making them a matter of national concern.

That's exactly what happened on September 30, 2002, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported six Listeria illnesses and five hospitalizations spanning six U.S. states, spurning a major cheese recall and outbreak designation. That's probably just the beginning, with the ongoing investigation likely to reveal higher numbers due to nationwide distribution of the affected cheeses under dozens of well-known brand names, including some private labels from major grocery chains. Here's a look at the current cheese crisis and how to identify affected brands and retailers.

Where, when, and how to identify affected cheeses

On September 30, 2022, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported a Listeria outbreak originating from Old Europe Cheese in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Sample collections and Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) analysis identified the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes and linked the particular strains to reported illnesses and hospitalizations. Contaminated products are reported as brie and camembert soft cheeses sold under dozens of brand names nationwide.

The FDA notes that six known illnesses to date, with five requiring hospitalizations, have been confirmed in Texas, California, Georgia, Michigan, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, stemming from cheese carrying Best By dates between September 28, 2022, and December 14, 2022. The CDC says symptoms of a foodborne illness like Listeria can manifest within two weeks of ingestion. While people with mild cases may not seek medical care or testing, severe illness can occur, beginning on the same day or even up to 10 weeks after consumption of contaminated food. 

The recall covers at least 24 brands of brie and camembert cheeses sourced from Old Europe Cheese, according to Consumer Reports. These brands, which span various packaging versions of the cheeses, include Black Bear, Fresh Thyme, Red Apple, Trader Joe's, Market 32, Reny Picot, Life in Provence, and other popular brand names. Major retailers offering the products include Safeway, Whole Foods, Target, Trader Joe's, Sprouts, Market Basket, Meijer, Target, Price Chopper, Stop & Shop, Lidl, Shaw's, and more.

How to respond if affected

The FDA posts an extensive list of the affected brands, product names, and available UPC codes. Consumers should be aware that the recalled Listeria-contaminated cheeses from Old Europe Cheese may have been repackaged from bulk cheese quantities and may no longer reflect original labels. As the saying goes, "If in doubt, throw it out." At the very least, ask your retailer about the origins of any brie or camembert cheese you purchase. 

According to the FDA's safe handling and cleaning advice, Listeria pathogens can still grow if they remain in a refrigerator, meaning they can spread to other foods. To prevent cross-contamination, set your refrigerator to 40 degrees Fahrenheit and your freezer to 0 degrees. Wash all refrigerator walls and shelves, as well as any countertops, knives, cutting boards, plates, or display stands that have come in touch with the infected cheeses. Follow up by sanitizing with a tablespoon of chlorine beach in a gallon of hot water. Make sure to dry only with unused paper towels or freshly laundered cloths.

Be aware of Listeria illness symptoms and seek immediate medical attention upon occurrence. These include muscle aches, fever, headaches, confusion, a stiff neck, imbalance, and seizures, notes the CDC. Pregnant people may only experience fever and flu-like symptoms, but Listeria infections can lead to miscarriage or premature birth.