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KEARNS -- Utah health officials are raising concerns over a recent outbreak of salmonella in a neighborhood in Kearns. The common link in the cases appears to be a Mexican-style soft cheese called queso fresco.
Health officials say the cluster of people who became sick with the salmonella bacteria got the contaminated cheese from family members or friends. They say the cheese doesn't appear to be produced or sold commercially, but instead is being made in a number of private homes with an unknown common source of raw milk.
"We are unable to find out what the source of the raw milk was. It's part of the investigation, [and] we're asking the question. However, people are hesitant to release that information. They're hesitant to tell authorities where their getting their raw milk," said Marilee Poulson, foodborne disease epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health.
As of Thursday, the health department had connected seven cases to the unknown source of unpasteurized milk; all of them are within the Hispanic community in the Kearns area.
The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food is assisting in the investigation of the outbreak. Officials there say it's illegal in Utah for anyone to distribute raw milk or raw milk products to the public unless they are a permitted raw for retail dairy. If the person responsible doesn't stop, they could face legal consequences.
"We get better cooperation from the public when we educate. We find that is the most effective means. However, if someone continues to produce a product without coming under regulations, that means that other people are going to get sick, and we will prosecute them," said Richard Clark, with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.
Health officials say that queso fresco made from raw milk can cause severe illness, even death in some cases. They suggest that if you plan on making the cheese, buy the products to make it from the store.
If you are determined to make it with unpasteurized milk, health officials say buy it from a licensed seller; there are six in Utah.
The Utah Department of Health says making homemade queso fresco can be done safely by following a few simple steps that will help prevent bacterial contamination.
- Use only pasteurized milk to make queso fresco. Queso fresco made from milk that has not been pasteurized can cause severe illness. This is especially dangerous for children, the elderly, and pregnant women. Eating queso fresco made with pasteurized milk will help pregnant women protect themselves and their unborn babies from getting a serious infection.
- We do not recommend that you use unpasteurized milk to make queso fresco. However, if you choose to do so, it may be less dangerous to use milk from a licensed seller. To obtain a list of licensed sellers of unpasteurized milk, call Utah Department of Agriculture and Food at 801-538-7156.
- Keep milk refrigerated.
- Use proper food handling practices to avoid cross-contamination when making queso fresco, such as:
- Separate raw meats from other foods;
- Use separate countertop space, cutting boards, utensils, etc. for raw meats and
- cooked meat or other raw or prepared foods
- Don't place food in a dish (e.g. a plate or bowl) that previously held raw meats or raw eggs without first cleaning that dish with soap and water.
- Don't buy queso fresco from street vendors or door-to-door sellers.
- If you buy queso fresco, make sure it comes from the refrigerated area of the grocery store or market, and that it is sealed and labeled for commercial sale.