FDA Seeks to Shut Cheese Factory in Queens
This week, the agency filed suit in Federal District Court in Brooklyn to halt all dairy production at the company, Mexicali Cheese Corporation in Woodhaven, due to what it called a history of unsanitary conditions and its managers’ refusal to change their practices.
Inspections over the last three years, which were set off by the finding of staphylococcal bacteria in a cheese sample in 2009, have turned up a long list of violations, including equipment that was covered in harmful bacteria; flies, maggots and mold in production areas; stagnant pools of dirty water on the floor; and rodent excrement in the supply rooms, the suit said.
Besides staphylococcal bacteria, which can cause a staph infection, inspectors found traces of listeria, another deadly bacteria, particularly for pregnant women and their fetuses and for people with compromised immune systems. The agency had no reports of illness caused by Mexicali cheese.
“The F.D.A. filed this complaint to protect the health of consumers,” Dara A. Corrigan, an F.D.A. associate commissioner, said in a statement. “We took this step to ensure that consumers do not eat potentially dangerous foods from this company.”
The suit named the company, its chief executive, Edinson Vergara, and a manager, Claudia J. Marin, as defendants. Telephone calls to the company were not answered on Tuesday.
Mexicali Cheese Corporation, based at 91-52 87th Street, primarily distributes Mexican-style cheese to grocers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Inspectors from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets have visited the factory more than 30 times since 2009, according to the report, and F.D.A. inspectors have also made visits. Inspectors said they found listeria on a dolly used to transport cheese throughout the plant, on the aprons of food handlers and in a pool of liquid in a storage area.
During one inspection, an employee was seen putting cheese in his mouth, then continuing to work without changing his gloves. The suit also said that “employee food handlers were observed wiping perspiration from their faces with their forearms while wearing disposable gloves that only covered the hands up to the wrists, leaving bare forearms exposed and in direct contact with the ready-to-eat cheese being processed.”
In 2010, the F.D.A. found a batch of Mexicali’s “Queso Cotija” to be contaminated with staphylococcal bacteria, and the company voluntarily recalled the product. But later that year, and again in 2011, when inspectors found there was listeria in the facilities, the company would not recall the nearly 300 pounds of cheese that had been made on the day the samples were taken.
When pressed by inspectors, Ms. Marin said on both occasions that the cheese had most likely already been consumed, and that no one had reported any illness related to the product. According to the complaint, Mr. Vergara and Ms. Marin agreed that improvements to the plant were necessary, but in follow-up visits, inspectors noted that no changes had been made.
Cheese Recipes with Bill & Sheila
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