Food & Drink

A filthy factory and deadly listeria shut down this cheese maker by court order

Wedges and wheels of Vulto’s Outleout cheese, the type found in the home of a woman who died of listeria.
Wedges and wheels of Vulto’s Outleout cheese, the type found in the home of a woman who died of listeria.

A ready-to-eat raw milk cheese company linked to a listeria outbreak that killed two people and sickened eight people over four states has been shut down by a federal court.

Vulto Creamery of Walton, New York, can’t resume operations until it gets an independent laboratory to test its facility and finished product for listeria; gets a program from an independent expert to control listeria; and cleans up any unsanitary conditions at its facility. So says the consent decree of permanent injunction from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York entered Friday.

Listeria often causes muscle aches, fever, chills and diarrhea. Listeria can kill, especially among the elderly, people with weakened immune systems and chronic medical conditions. The problems it can cause in pregnant women include premature labor, miscarriage, stillbirth and serious illnesses in newborn kids.

You and your employee were observed placing your bare hands and arms, up to your elbows, directly into the cheese making vat in order to manually break up recently formed cheese curds. Although you washed your hands, neither of you washed your lower or upper arms. Additionally, your employee was observed to have multiple cuts and abrasions on his arms, which came in direct contact with cheese curds and whey

From an FDA inspection of Vulto Creamery’s manufacturing facility

Before a series of recalls in March 2017, Vulto sold its raw milk cheeses at several stores in New York City and on both the East Coast and West Coast, as well as Chicago. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the listeria outbreak was slow developing and not as widespread as most listeria outbreaks, but damaging where it hit.

From September 2016 through March 2017, listeria eventually connected to Vulto cheeses sickened five people in New York, one person each in Florida, Connecticut and Vermont. All ate soft cheese. All were hospitalized. The Connecticut and Vermont victims died.

“The ill resident of Florida reported traveling to New York state and eating soft cheese there before becoming ill,” the CDC reported. “Available information indicated that cheese made by Vulto Creamery was for sale at stores where at least seven of the ill people bought cheese before getting sick. The Connecticut Department of Public Health collected leftover cheeses from the home of the deceased person in Connecticut. The outbreak strain of listeria was identified in a leftover cheese that the family identified as Ouleout cheese from Vulto Creamery.”

That leftover cheese belonged to Marianne Kane, who got sick Dec. 29, 2016 and died shortly thereafter. Richard Friedman got sick Oct. 11, 2016, was in the hospitalized for a week and a half and suffered a massive stroke on Oct. 31, 2016. Friedman died Nov. 2, 2016. Listeria didn’t kill Stuart’s Gail Ruppert, but caused her to be rushed from the Martin Health Center to Florida Hospital in Orlando, where she remained over a week.

All three filed lawsuits against Vulto in federal court, represented by food safety attorney Bill Marler of Marler Clark. All recently reached confidential settlements with Vulto.

vulto cheese 3

As for the requirement of cleanliness, a series of FDA inspections at Vulto’s factory from Feb. 28, 2017 through March 22, 2017 found:

▪ Despite finding listeria in 10 of 54 tests on food contact surfaces from Oct. 30, 2014, to April 28, 2015, Vulto didn’t check the finished products for listeria. Nor did Vulto continue checking the surfaces for listeria after April 28, 2015.

▪ Though Vulto would clean and sanitize areas with listeria, when listeria returned to the same places, Vulto just used the same method of cleaning and sanitizing that hadn’t worked previously.

▪ Vulto stored cleaned and sanitized wood boards in the attic “where exposed insulation and other debris were observed.” Ready-to-eat Hamden, Blais Blue, Andes and Walton Umber cheese products sat directly on those boards during the aging process.

▪ The inspector wrote “(Owner Johannes H. Vulto) and your employee were observed placing your bare hands and arms, up to your elbows, directly into the cheesemaking vat in order to manually break up recently formed cheese curds. Although you washed your hands, neither of you washed your lower or upper arms. Additionally, your employee was observed to have multiple cuts and abrasions on his arms, which came in direct contact with cheese curds and whey.”

▪ “A stainless steel ladle, used to scoop milk for pH analysis, had buildup of a rust-like substance on its inner surface. You stated you use this same ladle in the same manner during the manufacturing of all cheese products.”

▪ “…condensation was noted dripping from the horizontal stainless steel bar on the cheese press directly onto the food contact surface of the draining table below. This table is used to allow molded cheese products to drain off whey. Additionally, rust-like particles were noted in the condensation puddle on the table.”

▪ On Feb. 28, 2017, “a long piece of sticky fly tape, heavily populated with dead insects, observed hanging directly over exposed, uncovered ready-to-eat cheese products in your cheese aging room was pointed out to you. This fly tape was observed hanging in the cheese aging room in the same condition on 3/1/2017 and 3/7/2017.”

David J. Neal: 305-376-3559, @DavidJNeal

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