Friday, November 12, 2010

E. coli O157:H7 in Costco Cheese

E. coli O157:H7 is a particularly nasty bacterium. Only a few in your food can be enough to give you a totally miserable week or so of diarrhea and stomach cramps. For people who are more vulnerable, and especially young children (under age 5), and sometimes, older adults, it can even be much worse. Just as they seem to be improving, they develop a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). HUS can be fatal.

We tend to associate E. coli O157:H7 with meat, particularly consumption of undercooked hamburgers. True, it turns up there fairly regularly, including in the past few months. But vegans - don't think you are safe. It can be on your fruit and vegetables too. And, for those who eat dairy - it can be right in the cheese.
That is where it has been turning up in the past ten days. On November 4, the FDA informed us that E. coli O157:H7 had been found in Bravo Farms Dutch Style Gouda cheese. Ugh - offered at in-store tastings by Costco in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada and sold in Costco stores. ("Would you like a little taste of deadly bacteria?") People in the Southwest are getting very sick...although no one has died yet.

Then today I found another cheese recall, this time for Mauri Gorgonzola cheese with sell-by dates of 01/31/11 and 01/14/11. It has also tested positive for E. coli O157:H7. And, again Costco is selling it. DPI Specialty Foods of Tualatin, Ore., cut, packaged and distributed the cheese to Costco stores in Colorado. According to the FDA, the strain of E. coli O157:H7 in this cheese is different from the one in the earlier alert. So what is happening? Who knows. Once the investigation is completed - and this could take weeks, or even months - we may be told the cause. But - and this is an update(11/15) further investigation shows Costco is blameless. It wasn't one of their workers, contaminating it while cutting it up. The cheese came from DPI Specialty Foods already carrying the E.coli (proven through its presence in an unopened package).

In the meantime, I continue to suggest a preventive approach. If you would just as soon not spend the next week or more in misery, don't buy or eat any kind of cheese distributed by DPI Specialty Foods or bought at Costco, until we find out more (contaminated equipment? sick workers with poor sanitation? ). It could well be that other cheese products will be implicated as well. If you want to be even safer, cut out all cheese for a while, as the problem or problems may turn out to be earlier in the food chain - and, could be an ingredient problem.


Monday, November 8, 2010


Cilantro is currently in the recall news. Companies are recalling their cilantro-containing ready-to-eat products such as chicken salads, fish salads, dips, and so on, because FDA testing has turned up Salmonella bacteria in the cilantro. So far, only two RTE food companies have issued recalls - Orval Kent and PPA Fine Foods, but quite likely, more will follow (as I warned in my first alert). Any time a commonly used food ingredient is involved, the number of recalls always grows, sometimes over a period of months.

Among retailers, Trader Joe's has been particularly hard hit, and is pulling many of its products - including one of my long-time favorites. (Even though I always argue that RTE foods are the most dangerous to eat, I have to confess that I do buy a few of my favorites such as Trader Joes Cilantro Walnut Dip.)
The cilantro behind this mess originated at Epic Veg Inc, a Lompoc, California company. You may note that in the right hand top corner of their produce box, there is a logo for Primus Labs, and a logo "When Safety Counts." I assume this is the laboratory that does the company's product testing for bacteria such as Salmonella - the one that turned up. I tried to find out where Epic Veg's products originate and who else was among its customers, but no luck. The company's website is remarkably uninformative. The source information is very carefully worded. It does not state where products are actually grown (California or across the border in Mexico?.

The only thing I did find out is that the two principals of the company apparently spend a lot of time on the golf course. Maybe they should spend more time supervising their operations, or they won't be able to afford the golf club fees anymore. Many small established and fledgling companies (I would guess this one is the latter) have gone belly up because of contaminated products. No company wants to continue buying their cilantro from a distributor sending them Salmonella as a bonus.


Sunday, November 7, 2010


In countries like the US, we forget that there are still people in the world who don't get their food the way we do. They don't grow it or buy much. I was reminded of this today when I googled myself and found, to my surprise, a rather obscure piece of field research I had done decades ago on food security among the "Remote Area Dwellers" (RADs - a politically correct way of referring to "bushmen") of Botswana.

Basarwa and other ethnic minorities living in the Remote Area Dweller (RAD) settlements - sometimes called "bushmen" - are the poorest of the poor in Botswana -a generally prosperous country. Most live in planned settlements in the Kalahari desert, which are truly desolate places. I will never forget the drive there, those glowing eyes of the Kalahari desert lions and cheetah surrounding the jeep as we changed a flat tire at dusk (our fourth), the sounds in the nights I slept in the settlements, the incredible heat and thirst. I still see the RAD people themselves - an apathy which beats description, a lost cultural pride.

Most were hungry, not just part of the year, but all the time. The reason: they were losing the sources of food supply that they knew and had always depended on as hunter-gatherers - wild meat and veld foods. Men have the main role in hunting although women also go along and help. Walking for miles in the bush and gathering veld foods and products is women's job. They do not grow any food. It is just not in their culture and programs to try to get them to do it fail. Their lack of water and good soil are other constraints. The hunting and water stories are too complex to explain here, but in brief, more powerful outsiders such as urban recreational hunters (and tourists) are depleting wildlife and cattlemen are capturing the RAD wells. This not ony results in hunger, but destroys the RAD social structure, which is interwoven with the hunting process and sharing the kill.

Veld foods were also becoming depleted around the settlements. Here are some of the "veld" foods they were eating when I was there - when they could find them (I remember those delicious phane worms....):

•tubers, which is the staple of the Basarwa;
•various veld fruits, such as marula and milo;
•phane worms;
•mahupo (truffle);
•grewia (a type of berry bush, which is used as a cereal);
•nuts, such as mogongo and moramo; and
•herbs used for medicinal purposes and teas.

On this gourmet note...For more details, go to:


Thursday, November 4, 2010


I found a dead rat in the middle of my lawn today. Not exactly what you want to almost step on, as you go down after just one cup of coffee to collect the last of the season's (rather sad looking) tomatoes. Of course, that may be what has been eating them. I thought it was the squirrels.

Which reminds me, about the rats (or was it mice?) found in the Iowa henhouses of Wright County Egg - one of the two egg producers who gave us so much concern about Salmonella in our shell eggs in August of this year. Which also reminds me that I have been noticing quite a few of these generally unpopular critters coming up in the FDA's alerts, notices and recalls lately.

There were those rats found in the plant of the alfalfa producer who, after numerous warnings, was finally closed down. Then there was that Athens, Georgia food warehouse owned by Sun Hong Kai Holdings. Rats and mice were running all over the place, and jumping out of boxes at employees. (I won't go into details on how many dead/alive rats/mice and/or their droppings the inspectors found). After the FDA really got tough in August of this year, the workers were told to clean up the rats, their nests, urine, droppings etc. What they found was so bad that they ended up closing the warehouse (more unemployment).

More recent rats-in-food news has focused on rats in the food storage warehouses of a Nashville, Tennessee Lao Trading Company which distributes foods such as seafood items, tofu, canned fruits, vegetables and drinks, rice, rice sticks, fruit juice drinks, coconut milk, fish sauce and soy sauce in Tennessee. On October 27, the FDA announced that it has made the owner sign a "consent decree" - under which it promises to follow pest control practices, keep its warehouses in sanitary condition , and a few other things, to keep rats and nasty contaminants out. Until it did, it had to stop distributing food. Let's see if it does. By the way, it got into trouble for the same problem five years ago.

I am sure there are many recent cases I have missed. But that is probably enough: rodents like to be where there is food. Don't think they never get near our so-called safe food supply. And don't believe that inspectors catch all the cases. Next time you see little black things in your rice - throw it out.