For the sixth time in as many years, a Brooklyn cheese maker has been cited by the Food and Drug Administration for a myriad of health violations. This time, however, the feds are taking serious action.
Last month, the FDA filed for an injunction against Peregrina Cheese Corp., which makes specialty cheeses and other products for a predominantly Hispanic clientele in New York and Pennsylvania. The cheeses they make are tricky enough: queso fresco and queso Oaxaca are fresh cheeses, and unless tended to carefully, they can be breeding grounds for pathogens such as Listeria monocytogenes, a potentially deadly and nearly always unpleasant bacterium.
In fact, the problem is serious enough that Washington State University conducted a study a dozen years ago to find ways to improve the safety of the manufacturing process after a major Salmonella outbreak was linked to queso fresco made from raw milk in Yakima County, Wash. Called the Abuela (“Grandmother”) Project, researchers developed a recipe for queso fresco using pasteurized milk and then launched an outreach program to the state’s Hispanic community to teach people how to make queso fresco safely.
In this particular case, however, the problems are linked more to a long history of unsanitary manufacturing practices than to ignorance of microbiology (on the other hand, maybe they are related). Peregrina, owned by Isabella and Javier Peregrina, has been cited repeatedly by the FDA over the past six years for "filthy conditions". Those conditions have lead to citations and recalls in 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, and another recall in February of this year. That, apparently, was the final straw for food regulators in both Washington, DC and New York State. Feds filed for an injunction to prevent Peregrina from making or distributing any foods at all.
In an inspection in March, FDA investigators found numerous problems, many for which the company had been cited before. Among them:
- Condensation dripping from pipes directly into finished cheeses awaiting packaging
- “Apparent black mold like substance” growing on the ceilings above finished cheeses
- Personal hygiene issues among employees
- Finished mozzarella left in open buckets beneath potentially hazardous substances such as peeling paint and rusty pipes
- Heavy accumulation of dried food in the crevices of equipment used to transport finished cheese from the manufacturing room to packaging
- “Orange residue” on the blade of a knife used to slice finished cheese for grating, and in a bin containing salt used in making queso fresco
- Black mold and residue all over a wide range of objects from walls to fans
- A dead rodent on the premises
- Stagnant water in the tanks used to cool the cheeses, and
- Quite a few additional problems.
Despite efforts by FDA to ban the Peregrinas from ever working in the food industry again, Judge Frederick Block of Eastern New York entered a consent decree which allows them to continue in business under very strict guidelines.
“The defendants are now prohibited from processing and distributing food,” according to an FDA release, “until they demonstrate to the FDA that their facility and processing equipment are suitable to prevent contamination in the food that they process, prepare, store, and handle.”
Among the conditions, the Peregrinas had to destroy all product they had in-house, and recall all their products distributed since March 17. Considering that the majority of, if not all, Peregrina’s products are meant to be consumed almost immediately, it seems unlikely very many items will be recovered. Even more thought provoking is the time it has taken Peregrina to issue the recall since they were ordered to do so in July.