Listeriosis Outbreaks Associated With Soft Cheeses

United States, 1998-2014

Kelly A. Jackson; L. Hannah Gould; Jennifer C. Hunter; Zuzana Kucerova; Brendan Jackson


Emerging Infectious Diseases. 2018;24(6):1116-1118. 

In This Article


Consumption of contaminated soft cheese made under unsanitary conditions continues to be a common cause of listeriosis outbreaks in the United States. Multiple types of soft cheeses have been implicated in outbreaks, with most outbreaks linked to Latin-style soft cheese. These outbreaks disproportionately affect Hispanic pregnant women and their neonates, a group with 24 times higher risk for listeriosis than that of the general US population.[13] The proportion of listeriosis outbreaks caused by consumption of soft cheese made from pasteurized milk has increased in recent years. Reasons for the increase may include the growing US Hispanic population (which increased from 11% in 1998 to 17% in 2014[14]); a 2.5-fold increase in per capita consumption of cheese from 1980 to 2013;[15] consumer demand for certain types of cheeses; and an increase in the number of small producers, some of which had sanitary deficiencies. Better outbreak detection due to improved molecular subtyping and epidemiologic methods have resulted in a greater number of solved outbreaks; however, we did not observe a similar increased proportion of outbreaks linked to other foods during the same period. This finding suggests that changes in outbreak detection are unlikely to be the only contributor.

Despite the much higher risk for listeriosis per serving of cheese made from unpasteurized rather than pasteurized milk, during the study period, only about one quarter (4/17) of all outbreaks were linked to consumption of soft cheese made from unpasteurized milk. This result may be due, in part, to public health messages advising consumers at higher risk for listeriosis not to eat these cheeses.

For instances in which information was available, we noted environmental contamination and sanitation deficiencies in all outbreaks associated with cheese made from pasteurized milk. Although some of these deficiencies were unlikely to contaminate cheese directly, they indicate a lack of attention to sanitation and hygiene. This finding highlights the importance of robust sanitation and L. monocytogenes monitoring programs for cheese manufacturers.

Consumers, particularly persons at high risk for listeriosis, are advised to avoid unpasteurized milk and dairy products made from unpasteurized milk. Soft cheeses made with pasteurized milk, including commercial cottage cheese, cream cheese, and processed mozzarella, are generally considered safe. However, some soft cheeses made with pasteurized milk, particularly Latin-style soft cheeses, have been produced in facilities with improper processing conditions, resulting in L. monocytogenes contamination. Consumers cannot evaluate the conditions under which a cheese was made on the basis of labeling or other attributes of the product. We advise persons at higher risk for listeriosis (the elderly, persons with immunocompromising conditions, and pregnant women) to carefully consider whether to consume Latin-style and other soft cheeses implicated in previous outbreaks.