Competitors of Jalisco Mexican Products Inc., whose contaminated cheese has been linked to 29 deaths in Los Angeles and Orange counties, are worried that panicky consumers will stop buying their Mexican-style cheeses too.
Raul Andrade, plant manager and part-owner of Cotija Cheese Co. in East Los Angeles, said consumers and retailers were confusing his cheese with Jalisco's cotija variety, one of the cheeses recalled by health officials.
"People hear that they shouldn't buy cotija cheese and they think that means ours," said Andrade, whose aged, white cheese is simply labeled " Cotija--Queso de Mexico ."
Calls From Grocers
"Grocers are calling our distribution center asking us to take the cheese back," Andrade said. "We've got to set the record straight that there's absolutely nothing wrong with our cheese."
Cotija's cotija cheese has been tested and cleared by county health officials and federal investigators from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Andrade said. The company sells about 20,000 pounds a week to grocery stores, and employs 20 people.
Jose Ausencio Ariza, owner of Ariza Cheese Co. in Paramount, which also produces a cotija , said that customers had been calling him asking if his cheese is safe. But he said that no one had refused delivery of his products, adding that out-of-state orders were actually increasing now that Jalisco is at least temporarily out of the picture.
"I feel very sorry for them (Jalisco). I'm not glad about this at all," Ariza said. "I'm working six days a week, overtime. I can't take up the slack."
Representatives of Cacique Cheese Co. in the City of Industry, the largest producer of Mexican-style cheese in the Los Angeles area, had no comment other than that they had received preliminary notification from the county Health Services Department that an investigation had shown its products to be safe.
Cotija cheese, which is named for a town in the Mexican state of Michoacan, is used primarily for cooking. Traditionally, the cheese is aged at least 60 days, said Andrade, who produced the cheese in southern Mexico before coming to Los Angeles five years ago.
"Jalisco was selling fresh cheese and calling it cotija ," Andrade said. "That's like making jack cheese and calling it Parmesan."