MIDWAY -- Public health investigators have linked more than 2,000 cases of salmonella in six Utah counties to homemade "queso fresco" cheese. The cheese was sold -- unlabeled -- mostly by word of mouth.
Everyone familiar with the man who distributed the queso fresco called him "Mr. Cheese." However, his product has been making people sick for at least three years because raw milk, which was tainted with salmonella, was used in the cheese production.
Queso fresco is a popular, traditional Mexican cheese used as a garnish in dishes like fajitas.
"Our concern is a raw milk product is used in making this," said Royal Delegge of the Salt Lake Valley Health Department. "It originated in the cattle themselves, and the salmonells was never destroyed in the milk product."
Most common intestinal infection 14 cases per 100,000 people 30,000 confirmed cases annually
36,000 cases reported in October 2005
- 12 percent decrease over the last decade
- 1.5 increase over 2004
1 million estimated cases occur annually
- 20,000 result in hospitalization
- 378 result in death
Accounts for 30 percent of foodborne illness-related deaths annually
Information from Marler Clark.
Raw milk and unsanitary conditions appear to be the leading cause to the salmonella problem. However, health officials would not go into details about the actual case, only saying the products sold by "Mr. Cheese" were sold without proper permits, in out of the way locations like the back of a car and the containers were unlabeled.
"Some of the cheese was actually stored on the floor in the cheese presses," described Tom Travino of the SLVHD. "And, of course, there were flies present."
Officials said they had to shut down the bootleg operation so more people would not get sick. However, most queso found in stories is safe, according to health officials.
When queso fresco is fresh, and made with sterile, pasteurized milk, it is a mild, creamier and saltier version of feta cheese.
The health department believes they have the situation under control. Nevertheless, fines and penalties may be coming for "Mr. Cheese" in the near future.