SACRAMENTO — Raw milk used to make Jalisco-brand cheese, coupled with a failure of the company's pasteurization process, was the most likely cause of the listeriosis epidemic that killed 84 people, federal and state investigators said Friday.
"We all agree the cause of the contamination of Jalisco cheese is most probably the raw milk that went into the (company's) plant," Dr. Michael Linnan, an epidemiologist with the National Centers for Disease Control, said.
Even so, the spring and summer epidemic would not have occurred if the milk had been properly pasteurized by Artesia-based Jalisco Mexican Products Inc. before it was used to make cheese, said Hans Van Nes, deputy director of the state Department of Food and Agriculture.
"If something had not gone wrong with pasteurization, this problem (the epidemic) should not have existed," agreed Dr. Shirley Fannin of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.
As a result, a federal misdemeanor charge against Jalisco for allegedly adulterating food "is under very strong consideration" said Abraham Kleks, Los Angeles district director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Federal and California officials agreed months ago that something went wrong with the pasteurization process at Jalisco's facility in Artesia, even though tests showed the pasteurization equipment itself was capable of working properly. The factory was shut down and its cheeses were recalled when the epidemic was announced on June 13.
But Friday's announcement of the investigators' conclusions, which came after a six-hour, closed-door meeting, was the first time all six investigating agencies have made a joint statement implicating raw milk as the most likely source of the Listeria monocytogenes bacteria that tainted the cheese.
The investigators' conclusions were strongly disputed by Joe Gonsalves, a lobbyist for the City of Industry-based Alta-Dena Dairy, which collected raw milk for use in making the cheese from five of its own dairy herds and 22 other herds.
"People have been drinking this (raw) milk" at a rate of 300,000 glasses per day in California, Gonsalves said. "Who's been sick? Nobody's been getting sick. If it was a dangerous product, wouldn't it make sense that people drinking the milk would get sick?"
The Centers for Disease Control and other agencies acknowledged they were unable to find the bacteria in any of Alta-Dena's raw milk.
But based on recent tests by a French microbiologist, they concluded the milk was most likely the common source of the Listeria type 4B bacteria that was found in Jalisco cheese, many of the epidemic victims and sour cream and sodium caseinate made from raw milk by Alta-Dena.
The spring and summer listeriosis epidemic killed 84 people and seriously sickened at least 240 others, mostly unborn, stillborn and newborn babies of Latino mothers. Roughly half of the disease cases have been linked to the cheese.
Nationwide figures have not been collected, but officials have estimated about 80% of the illnesses and deaths occurred in California.
Deputy Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Clifford Klein left immediately after the meeting and was unavailable for comment on whether his agency planned to file criminal charges against Jalisco. He previously has said involuntary manslaughter was the most serious charge under consideration.
But the other officials acknowledged that without hard evidence to show Listeria was actually present in the raw milk, it would be difficult to meet the California legal requirement to sustain an involuntary manslaughter charge.
Klein's investigation has been based on Jalisco records that showed the company received far more raw milk than its equipment could possibly have pasteurized.
Because the raw milk theory hasn't been proved conclusively, Van Nes and the other officials stopped short of calling for an outright ban on raw milk sales--as was recommended earlier this year by the Los Angeles County Grand Jury.
Instead, Van Nes' department ordered routine testing of all California raw milk for the presence of Listeria bacteria, including intensive sampling during the next two weeks. He said that if the agency finds Listeria in raw milk from any dairy herd, "we'll take it off the market."
Harold Stueve, a co-owner of Alta-Dena Dairy, called the stepped-up inspections "an organized conspiracy . . . being built up (by health officials) to eliminate all raw milk from the United States of America, to take the freedom away from people. I call it a crime."
Stueve contended none of his company's products have ever been contaminated by Listeria .