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New York cheese producer pleads guilty to causing listeria outbreak that killed two, hospitalized eight

Thir Sakdi Phu Cxm / EyeEm/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) — A former cheese producer in New York has pleaded guilty in connection to manufacturing raw milk products that were linked to an outbreak of listeria which resulted in two deaths and eight hospitalizations, authorities say.

Johannes Vulto and his company, Vulto Creamery LLC, each pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of causing the introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce on Tuesday after it was discovered that a 2016-2017 outbreak of listeriosis, the disease caused by the pathogen Listeria monocytogenes, was linked back to cheese made in his factory, according to a press release published by the Department of Justice on Tuesday.

“Vulto oversaw operations at Vulto Creamery manufacturing facility in Walton, New York, including those relating to sanitation and environmental monitoring,” the Department of Justice said. “In pleading guilty, Vulto and Vulto Creamery admitted that between December 2014 and March 2017, they caused the shipment in interstate commerce of adulterated cheese.”

Environmental swabs taken at the Vulto Creamery facility between July 2014 and February 2017 repeatedly tested positive for Listeria species, according to the plea agreement.

“The Listeria family includes both harmless species and L. monocytogenes, which can cause listeriosis in humans. In March 2017, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) linked Vulto Creamery’s cheese to an outbreak of listeriosis, Vulto shut down the Vulto Creamery facility and issued a partial recall that was expanded to a full recall within weeks,” the DOJ said.

The listeriosis outbreak caused by the sanitation issues resulted in eight hospitalizations and two deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It is crucial that American consumers be able to trust that the foods they buy are safe to eat,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian Boynton, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “The department will continue to work with its law enforcement partners to hold responsible food manufacturers that sell dangerously contaminated products.”

Listeriosis is a severe, invasive illness that can be life-threatening in some cases, particularly for pregnant women and their newborns, the elderly and persons with weakened immune systems.

“This investigation and prosecution holds accountable the defendant and his business who through unsafe practices caused illness and death to consumers in an entirely preventable tragedy,” said U.S. Attorney Carla B. Freedman for the Northern District of New York. “The law enforcement and regulatory partners involved in this case will continue to work together to bring to justice those who endanger the public through unsafe and unsanitary products and facilities.”

Vulto and Vulto Creamery pleaded guilty in Syracuse, New York, and a sentencing date is expected to be set by the court at a later date.

“U.S. consumers rely on the FDA to ensure that their food is safe and wholesome,” said Special Agent in Charge Fernando McMillan of the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations New York Field Office. “When companies and individuals put themselves above the law by producing food that endangers and harms the public, as occurred in this case, we will see that they are brought to justice.”

The FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations investigated the case.

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