YAKIMA - Federal food inspectors confirmed Wednesday that eight E. coli illnesses in four states are linked to a Washington artisan cheese maker known as a pioneer in the industry.
A Food and Drug Administration report, also released Wednedsay, found problems with food safety at her facility.
Sally Jackson, owner of Sally Jackson Cheese of Oroville, in Okanogan County, disputes findings in the report, but said she plans to shut down her business. She said Washington state had ordered her to upgrade her aging, wooden facility a month ago.
“My argument then was that I have never made anybody sick in 30 years. That’s what breaks my heart now, that this is how it ended,” she said. “This has never happened.”
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The company voluntarily recalled all of its cheeses last week after the Food and Drug Administration warned that the products should be avoided because they could be contaminated by E. coli. Eight people in Washington, Oregon, Minnesota and Vermont have been sickened, one of whom was briefly hospitalized.
A small farm business in rural north-central Washington, just south of the Canadian border, Sally Jackson Cheese opened 30 years ago and makes cheese from unpasteurized, raw milk from cows, sheep and goats.
Its products are distributed nationally to high-end retail shops, markets and restaurants. Whole Foods Market announced a recall of several Sally Jackson varieties, including some cheese that had been repackaged with a Whole Foods label.
Sally Jackson products do not have labels or codes, and are wrapped in plain brown paper, twine and either grape or chestnut leaves.
David Gremmels, owner and cheesemaker at Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Ore., and outgoing president of the American Cheese Society, said he also was brokenhearted for Jackson, calling her one of the “great cheesemakers of the American farmstead, artisan cheese movement.”
“These are small, family-owned businesses that are making very high-quality, delicious, original recipes,” he said. “There’s just some work to be done in increasing awareness of food safety, therefore preventing such recalls and potential risk.”
The Aniata Cheese Co. of Vista, Calif., distributes cheese to high-end restaurants, hotel and gourmet shops in southern California. The company has bought Sally Jackson cheese all eight years its been in business, owner Bob Stonebrook said. About 30 pounds on the shelf were recalled, plus about another 30 pounds that had just arrived.
Stonebrook declined to comment on the inspection reports, saying his customers have always been satisfied with the cheese and never had a problem with health concerns from it.
“From the standpoint of those in the artisan cheese business, she’s considered one of the pioneers in the industry,” he said. “It’s a very small industry, but it’s growing in terms of knowing each other and being aware of the cheeses that are out there, and she has always been very, very highly regarded.”
According to the FDA inspection report, employees did not thoroughly wash or sanitize hands when they may have become soiled or contaminated, and hand-washing facilities were inadequate. Manure, mud, straw, wood chips and other debris had accumulated on the floors. Glazed ceramic flower pots, some broken or cracked with missing pieces, were used as cheese molds.
Jackson has two to four part-time employees, depending on the season. She said she was the only person in the cheese house making cheese, while her employees were in the milking room, and the inspector did not see her wash her hands because he was in the other room.
“He didn’t see it. That’s true,” she said. “He wasn’t there.”
Jackson also disputed other findings in the report, but said inspectors have said her facility is too rundown and needs to be rebuilt. With taxable income of just $12,000 per year, she said she will shut down instead.