North Carolina state officials have linked raw milk cheese products to a dairy manufacturer in recent Salmonella outbreak. This outbreak, linked to the Chapel Hill Creamery, involves a slew of raw milk-related items, including raw milk cheeses.

Timeline of Events

In late July, state officials linked cheese products produced by Chapel Hill Creamery to an outbreak of Salmonella poisoning. There have been at least 100 people sickened in the outbreak so far. Fifty of those cases are in North Carolina, and fifty of the cases come from Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Health Officials had been following the outbreak for several weeks prior to the link to Chapel Hill Creamery. Colleen Bridger, who is the director of the Orange County Health Department, provided details of the investigation, stating that “Orange County, Durham County, Wake County and Chatham County were all noticing that we had higher-than-usual reported cases of Salmonella.” The investigation then had those affected in the outbreak fill out questionnaires in order to help pinpoint the source of the outbreak. Chapel Hill Creamery was suspected as the source after multiple people reported eating cheese produced by the Creamery prior to being sick. The State Department of Agriculture then reported that a sample taken from Chapel Hill Creamery tested positive for Salmonella. Further testing revealed that the Salmonella found at Chapel Hill Creamery matched Salmonella found in those sickened in the outbreak.

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Chapel Hill Creamery, in cooperation with state and local health officials, issued a voluntary recall after learning of the outbreak. The Chapel Hill, North Carolina based creamery recalled all of their products on July 29, 2016. All of the UPC codes associated with creamery products are subject to recall. The recall affects many different types of cheese, including Quark, Danziger, Swiss, Paneer, Calvander, Hot Farmers Cheese, New Moon, Smoked Mozzarella, Fresh Mozzarella, Burrata, Hickory Grove, Carolina Moon, Smoked Farmers Cheese, Dairyland Farmers Cheese, and Pheta. All packages and sizes of these cheeses are under recall. The recalled cheese was distributed to farmer’s markets and restaurants in North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia. Health officials have recommended that any consumers who find Chapel Hill Creamery products in their homes dispose of them to prevent illness. The co-founder of Chapel Hill Creamery, Portia McKnight, issued a statement alongside the recall announcement, saying “Although there is not yet a definitive link between the CHC cheese and the illnesses, there is enough evidence to implicate the cheese and we are asking customers to not consume these cheeses or use them in food service.” McKnight also stressed that their top priority is the safety of their customers.

Background of the Creamery

The cheese produced by Chapel Hill Creamery comes from their farm, where they milk 30 cows. The various cheese products are then produced with the raw milk. Raw, or unpasteurized, milk provides a great environment for bacteria to thrive. Because of this, raw milk has been linked to a myriad of recalls and outbreaks in the past. The process of pasteurization involves heating the milk to the point that all potentially dangerous microorganisms in the milk are eliminated. Microorganisms found in raw milk are not limited to just Salmonella, as Listeria, Campylobacter, and E. coli bacteria are also commonly found in raw milk. Pasteurization greatly reduces the risk of a consumer being infected with a foodborne illness. Pasteurization is also used to make products other than milk safe to use, such as juice and canned food. Colleen Bridger, as part of the Orange County Health Department investigation announcement, notes that “there is always a risk,” of contamination when using raw milk. She then said that the risk is around 1%. Even with a small risk of contamination, health officials recommend that people handle products containing raw milk with caution or avoided them entirely.

A Background on Salmonella

Dr. Salmon, the bacteria’s namesake, first discovered salmonella bacteria more than 125 years ago. Cases of Salmonella poisoning in the United States first began to be tracked in 1962. There have been 32 serotypes, or strains, of Salmonella bacteria identified since then. These serotypes, from Salmonella Newport to Salmonella Litchfield, cause a CDC estimated 1.2 million cases of illness, 23,000 hospitalizations, and 450 deaths per year in the United States. This makes Salmonella one of the most common sources of foodborne illness in the United States. Thankfully, the incidence rates of Salmonella poisoning appear to be declining, with a 9% decrease in infection rates in 2013 when compared to 2010-2012 infection rates. Salmonella infections grow more common in the summer, but the reason for this is unknown. Salmonella outbreaks are very common, and a total of 106 separate Salmonella outbreaks were reported in 2012.

There are many practices that can help prevent Salmonella infections. The most effective way to prevent infection is to thoroughly cook poultry, eggs, ground beef, and other meats. It is recommended that all meats be heated to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit in order to kill any bacteria found in the meat. Foods and drinks containing raw eggs or unpasteurized (raw) milk should be avoided. Proper hand washing is essential to preventing infection, and anyone preparing food should wash their hands thoroughly prior to handling any food items. Caution and proper hand washing should also be implemented when handling reptiles and birds, as they can have the bacteria present on their skin.

Salmonella poisoning will usually cause symptoms between 12 and 72 hours after infection. Typically, a Salmonella infection will produce symptoms including fever, abdominal cramping, nausea, and vomiting. In many cases, the illness will only last between 4-7 days, but there is a chance of the illness worsening. Those with certain risk factors, including the elderly, children, and those with suppressed immune systems are at an increased risk of developing a serious Salmonella infection. Diarrhea caused by a Salmonella infection can cause severe dehydration, especially in young children. It is important to stay well hydrated if you are experiencing diarrhea. If you or a loved one begins to show the symptoms of a Salmonella infection, contact a medical professional. Anyone with questions regarding the outbreak is encouraged to call the Orange County hotline at (919) 245-2378.