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Federal Inspectors Warned of Inspection Program before Listeriosis Outbreak

November 11, 1985

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Federal officials told the state its dairy inspections were inadequate seven months before 85 people died from a disease that investigators think may have been linked to contaminated cheese.

Federal health officials also said at least eight days passed last June before the state Department of Food and Agriculture complied with requests to test cows that supplied milk for Jalisco cheeses, meaning contaminated cows could have been removed from herds before inspectors arrived, the Daily News reported Sunday in a copyright story.

Although they cannot prove it, federal inspectors insist contaminated cows remain the most likely source of the outbreak of the disease called listeriosis.

The outbreak ran from March through August, forcing a nationwide recall of cheese made by Jalisco Mexican Products Inc. of suburban Artesia. There were roughly 250 cases of listeriosis, including at least 85 deaths or stillbirths nationwide, mostly in California.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspection reports dating to last November raised questions about state dairy inspections and the risk of Listeria monocytogenes bacteria, the newspaper reported.

″(The FDA) said long before Jalisco that the inspection program was in serious shape,″ said Bob Fredenburg, consultant to the state Senate Toxic and Public Safety Management Committee.

None of the dairies mentioned in the earlier FDA inspection reports supplied milk to Jalisco, but Fredenburg said Senate investigators consider the criticisms a sign of lax inspections statewide. In response, he said the FDA may be asked to assume more responsibility for California dairies.

Inspectors from the U.S. Public Health Service found violations in California dairies that were either missed or ignored by state inspectors, and warned that faulty pasteurization had been linked to listeriosis, the documents show.

At Penn Com Enterprises in Antioch, for example, state inspectors gave the operation passing grades of 90 for sanitation and pasteurization. During a later federal inspection, the plant was rated at 47 and 43, respectively, well below the passing mark of 80, the Daily News reported.

In a letter to state agriculture officials dated Nov. 16, 1984, FDA compliance officer Catherine King noted that past food poisoning outbreaks have been traced to shoddy dairy operations.

″In recent years there have been milk-product-related illnesses of yersiniosis (a bacterial illness) and listeriosis traced to milk plants where the integrity of the pasteurization process has been questioned,″ she said. ″For this reason we urge early correction of these deficiencies.″

The FDA conducted at least eight follow-up inspections between November and April. Dairies that passed state scrutiny failed federal inspections three times, documents show.

Hans Van Nes, state deputy director of food and agriculture, defended the state’s actions, saying the milk control program ″inspects about 15 billion pounds of milk and milk products annually and went for more than 15 years with an unblemished record. I think that record speaks for itself.″

Officials also accused state food and agriculture officials of waiting eight days after the Jalisco plant was closed June 13 before collecting milk samples from the 27 dairy herds that supplied Jalisco. The samples had been requested by the National Centers for Disease Control.

Van Nes said samples weren’t taken until the week of June 21 because inspection teams had to be formed to collect the milk.

Jalisco passed all its state pasteurization inspections, state records indicate.

The source of contamination hasn’t been identified and investigators have focused on company records indicating Jalisco bought more milk than it pasteurized. Raw milk may have been used in making the cheese, some officials suspect.

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