Okanogan County artisan cheese linked to E. coli recalled
A few weeks ago, Oroville farmer Sally Jackson told an inspector that in 30 years of making cheese — cheese that is revered not only in Washington but by gourmet chefs nationwide — she'd never gotten anyone sick.
Seattle Times staff reporter
A few weeks ago, Oroville farmer Sally Jackson told a state inspector that in 30 years of making cheese — cheese that is revered not only in Washington but by gourmet chefs nationwide — she'd never gotten anyone sick.
That all changed in an instant. Over the past week, Jackson learned that eight cases of E. coli illness are likely linked with her products. On Friday, she announced a recall and is cooperating with government agencies.
It is the second time in two months that an artisan cheesemaker in Washington was connected with a bacteria that causes foodborne illnesses, though the reaction of the two cheesemakers could not have been more different.
Inspectors found Listeria monocytogenes in cheese made by the Estrella Family Creamery, and also repeatedly identified the bacteria in swabs of its Montesano facility, yet that Grays Harbor County dairy refused a request to recall its product. In October, the Food and Drug Administration obtained a court order forcing it to shut down. The creamery is battling the court action.
"I do not want to be associated with their fight," Jackson said. "The bottom line is, I don't want to make anybody else sick."
Four cases of E. coli 0157 came to the state Health Department's attention in the fall, including the case of one woman who was briefly hospitalized. Laboratory tests confirmed the four were linked to each other. Four additional E. coli cases — in Oregon, Minnesota and Vermont — also were linked to the Washington outbreak via laboratory tests.
Extensive questionnaires preliminarily connected the eight to Jackson's cheese.
After that, inspectors visited the Okanogan County dairy and area restaurants that offer Jackson's cheese, taking samples for testing. According to the state Department of Agriculture, one unopened cheese wheel tested positive for E. coli. Investigators are awaiting the results from additional lab tests that will compare the strain of E. coli from the illnesses with that found in the cheese.
Thursday night, the FDA asked Jackson to issue a recall, and by Friday morning she had done so.
For years, Jackson operated with few problems, however in the last year, inspectors have noted several violations at her facility, including finding that she did not sanitize equipment after use. She has worked to fix the problems.
Jackson got interested in cheese after moving with her family to 130 acres in the Okanogan Highlands in the 1970s.
"We had two goats and a cow, and I started trying to make cheese," she recalled. "People started saying it tasted good."
The operation is bigger today, but still is comparatively small. She and a part-time helper milk 40 sheep, 12 goats and a cow named Renata. They sell to high-end restaurants, as well as retail stores across the country, and the cheeses are distinctively wrapped in grape leaves from neighbors' farms.
"She kind of built up the artisan-cheese scene in Washington," said Eric Tanaka, executive chef with Tom Douglas restaurants.
Indeed, today there are 47 cheese producers in Washington; there were 10 in 2000.
Sally Jackson Cheeses have long had a certain mystique.
"You had to court her and kind of give her reasons of why she should sell you cheese," Tanaka recalled.
Over the years, her products have been served in most Seattle fine-dining establishments, including Douglas' Palace Kitchen. Gourmets rave about the quality, so news of the problem — and the listeria issue at Estrella — came as a shock.
"I think it's the first time where small producers have been affected this way," Tanaka said.
Food activists have cried foul, but Tanaka, for one, is happy to hear health and agriculture authorities are "doing their job."
"I really think they're trying to help them remain viable over the long term," he said.
Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or email@example.com
News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.
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