Estrella Family Creamery shut down by FDA after bacteria found
In an unusual action, the Food and Drug Administration forced one of Washington's most well-known artisan cheesemakers, Estrella Family Creamery, to shut down, saying the product could contain bacteria that can cause serious illness.
Seattle Times staff reporter
In healthy people, ingesting Listeria monocytogenes might cause gastrointestinal distress. It can be life-threatening for pregnant women, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. It gets in the bloodstream and can cause miscarriages. Unlike other human pathogens, it can live and multiply even while refrigerated. The source is animal feces.
In an unusual action, the Food and Drug Administration forced one of Washington's most well-known artisan cheesemakers to shut down, saying the product could be contaminated with bacteria that can cause serious illness.
The FDA took the action Friday, after asking Estrella Family Creamery to initiate a recall. Estrella declined.
Foodies, who clearly adore the company's cheeses, have been all abuzz decrying the move.
The award-winning raw-milk cheeses, made in Montesano, Grays Harbor County, are sold at farmers markets, high-end restaurants and retail stores in several states.
No illnesses have been linked with the cheeses, the state Department of Health said.
Problems at Estrella began in February. That's when an inspection by the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) turned up Listeria monocytogenes, a bacteria found in animal feces, in the creamery's production areas and in its finished cheese, according to court records.
WSDA found the bacteria in March, as well. The problems centered on a particular cave where soft cheeses are aged, according to co-owner Kelli Estrella, adding that soft cheeses are more susceptible to bacteria growth.
"We very aggressively went after the problem," she said. The company voluntarily recalled several cheeses, destroyed the cheese in that cave and temporarily shut down production while it improved the facility.
On Aug. 2, the FDA conducted an unannounced inspection, taking scores of swabs throughout the operation. Several swabs turned up listeria, although no cheese tested positive at that time.
"They found I think a total of four in the whole entire place," Estrella said.
Two weeks later, an investigator took a sample of a cheese called Caldwell Crik Chevrette and that also tested positive for the bacteria. On Sept. 1, the FDA and WSDA conducted another inspection and this time the creamery revealed that it had been testing cheeses in recent months, and had six positive tests between May and August, court documents state. Estrella said that's misleading, and that those cheeses were made before the post-recall changes.
Besides, she added, "to my best remembrance, there was only two isolated positives." In any case, those batches had not gone out to market.
The FDA does not have authority to order recalls; typically, however, foodmakers voluntarily recall products at the agency's request.
Estrella, however, refused.
The company said the problem was that the FDA demanded recall of all of its cheese, not just that in the troublesome cave.
"There was no proof they needed to do something that aggressive," Estrella said. "That would essentially put us out of business."
Last week, the FDA showed up with court papers and seized all of the cheese.
The fact that listeria was found repeatedly over time "demonstrates that sanitation efforts were inadequate," the documents state.
To fight the matter, the company has to go to U.S. District Court.
Estrella said the whole episode — and a similar recent incident involving a Missouri cheesemaker — shows that the country is off-track.
"To me the subject of this whole thing isn't really about listeria," she said. "It's about liberty and freedoms."
On the company's website, she likened the action to government attempts to take away guns and said her faith in God would help the family get through this. The post has since been removed.
Meanwhile, the cheesemakers were at the University District Farmer's Market over the weekend, but instead of selling cheese they were talking about injustice.
Customers were supportive, hoping their beloved cheeses will be back on the market again soon.
Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org