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Cheese recalled in 15 states over listeria concerns

Cheese products from a California-based manufacturer are destined for the trash as federal public health officials continue to investigate a decade-old listeria outbreak that remains ongoing.

Wisconsin-based Sargento cheese, the latest company affected by the outbreak, announced Thursday it had voluntarily recalled products that were supplied by California-based Rizo-Lopez Foods Inc., the company linked to the outbreak. The recalled products were ones sold to food service groups and not direct to consumers.

The brand, best known for its shredded varieties of Italian-style cheese, said in a statement that its products sold in grocery stores were not affected by the outbreak but “out of an abundance of caution,” it opted to voluntarily recall any of its products that were packaged on the same factory lines as Rizo-Lopez items. Sargento said it has since terminated its relationship with Rizo-Lopez, a small manufacturer of Mexican dairy products that includes sour cream, desserts and cheeses.

Listeria outbreaks can be deadly. Here’s what to know about them.

Sargento’s voluntary recall affects 11 varieties of shredded cheese in 15 states, according to data from the Food and Drug Administration: Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey, Nevada, Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. The affected products had best-by dates listed between March and June 2024.

Sargento’s move comes a month after Rizo-Lopez recalled dozens of dairy products over concerns of possible listeria contamination. The FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked the company to a decade-long listeria outbreak, first detected in June 2014, that has led to two deaths and at least 23 hospitalizations across the country.

Rizo-Lopez provides products dairy products for brands that include Dole, H-E-B, La Ordena, Trader Joe’s and 365 Whole Foods Market. The company also sold products that appeared in unbranded taco kits, wraps and meals at retailers like Albertsons, Costco, Safeway, Stater Bros. Markets, and Vons.

The decade-old investigation into the outbreak revealed as early as 2017 that soft cheeses like queso fresco were a potential source of the outbreak, but had not been able to identify the specific brand or manufacturer.

The CDC reopened the investigation in January after reports of new illnesses surfaced the previous month.

“Epidemiology and recent laboratory data show that queso fresco and cotija made by Rizo Lopez Foods are making people in this outbreak sick,” the CDC said last month.

Listeria, short for Listeria monocytogenes, can be fatal and is especially dangerous to pregnant and elderly people. Roughly 260 people die each year after being sickened by listeria, the CDC reports. Detection can be complicated by the delay between consuming the contaminated food and experiencing symptoms. Some symptoms may present the same day a person eats the contaminated food, and in severe cases can start within two weeks of eating contaminated food; in milder cases, symptoms might not emerge for as many as 10 weeks.

Health officials are urging consumers not to eat the affected products and to check the FDA website for the latest information on which products in their refrigerator or freezer that may be affected and throw them out. Anyone who has purchased the items for either home or commercial settings should also clean and sanitize any surfaces or containers the products touched.

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