Despite warnings from California public health officials, Californians are continuing to purchase and eat illegal cheese.  On March 17th, Dr. Karen Smith warned California residents about the dangers of illegally manufactured Mexican-style soft cheeses. Smith, the Director and State Public Health Officer of the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), said the cheeses are often sold by street vendors and “made with raw, unpasteurized milk and under unsanitary conditions.”

The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) launched a campaign – “Illegal Cheese Can Make You Sick!” – in an attempt to steer residents away from purchasing illegal cheese and encourage them to buy pasteurized cheese from reputable markets.

Evidence shows that the campaign and the statements by high-ranking public officials both fell flat. Multiple California counties have reported new cases of Salmonella linked to illegal cheese. These cases occurred after Smith’s statement.

Eight Tulare County Residents Contract Salmonella from Illegal Cheese

Illegal cheese caused eight Tulare County residents to fall ill with Salmonella, according to CDPH reports. “The most common risk factor with these cases of Salmonella is illegally manufactured Mexican-style soft cheeses,” said Tulare County public health officer Dr. Karen Haught. The Tulare cases constitute part of a much larger, statewide outbreak that has resulted in over 50 illnesses since November 2015.

Three other outbreak patients traveled to, or consumed pasteurized cheese purchased in Tulare County. A number of the Salmonella cases required hospitalization, though officials declined to specify how many.

The illegal cheeses involved in the outbreak are “often made in unsanitary conditions with raw, unpasteurized milk,” explained Haught. She went on to state that the majority of illegal cheese is sold by street vendors, though she conceded that this is not always the case.

Seven Salmonella Cases Attributed to Illegal Cheese in Kern County

Though reports indicate Kern County public health officials have a “pretty good idea of where ‘illegal’ cheese is coming from,” they are still working to pin down the exact source of the potentially dangerous food. The county recently reported seven cases of Salmonella. According to officials, soft homemade Mexican-style cheese caused all seven illnesses.

All Kern County Patients Report Consuming “Dangerous” Illegal Cheese

Michelle Corson, public relations officer for the Kern County Health Department, characterized the cheese as clearly dangerous. She explained that people manufacture and sell cheese “out of their home, and in unapproved, typically unsanitary conditions.”

“The one connection is all these persons have reported eating illegal Mexican cheese from an unapproved vendor,” Corson said of the Kern County cases.

Although CDPH says the illegal cheeses are often sold by street vendors, Corson said that door-to-door sales of the product were not uncommon. Some vendors even sell the cheese online, using social media platforms such as Facebook.

Sellers Conducting Business using Multiple Approaches

Kern County resident Beatriz Rodriguez admits to recently purchasing some of the Mexican-style cheese that officials are urging Californians to avoid. “I bought some like a week, or a week and a half ago off a lady on Facebook for five dollars,” Rodriguez said. After consuming some of the cheese, she decided that she didn’t like the taste and threw the dairy product in the trash.

Rodriguez wants to keep her children safe, and after her most recent experience with illegal cheese, she decided it best to “buy [cheese] here at the store. Something packaged, something you know where it’s coming from.” She expressed her relief that past experiences with illegal cheese hadn’t caused her children to fall ill. “I don’t want to be in the emergency room with them.”

Street vendors did not sell Rodriguez illegal cheese. The Kern County mother purchased the cheese on Facebook, and noted that the woman who sold her illegal cheese is still operating their business on Facebook. Not only was the business still operational, the “lady kept pushing me to buy more,” Rodriguez said, adding “I just don’t want to anymore.” Some of her neighbors continue to purchase cheese from the seller.

Data From Counties Enables More Effective State Response

Corson said the Kern health department forwards information regarding each case to the California Department of Public Health. which is able to identify larger epidemiological trends. Analysis of the data associated with the Salmonella cases linked to illegal cheese shows that the outbreak disproportionately effects certain segments of the population. “We are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of reported Salmonella cases, particularly in the Hispanic community,” CDPH’s Smith said.

Kern County Urges Resident Action

“This is unsafe to our community,” Corson said of the illegal Mexican-style cheese.

The Kern County Public Health Department asks anyone who knows where these cheese are being sold or who has consumed some of the illegal cheese to contact the department at 661-321-3000.

“We urge our community to take a stand for the health of their family and their neighbors,” Corson concluded.

If you or a family member contracted a Salmonella infection, you can contact the attorneys at Ron Simon & Associates for a free case evaluation.  Ron Simon & Associates is one of the nation’s leading law firms representing victims of Salmonella and other foodborne illnesses.

You can fill out the online evaluation form or call us toll-free at 1-888-335-4901.  There is no cost to you.