Citing several violations dating back to 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last week moved to close a Woodhaven-based cheese plant.
According to a 17-page docket filed Jan. 30 at the United States Eastern District Court in Brooklyn, the FDA is looking to close down Mexicali Cheese Corporation, located on 87th Avenue in Woodhaven, in light of numerous violations, including FDA inspectors finding life threatening bacteria in the facility and unsanitary conditions during several inspections. The cheese plant delivers its products to vendors in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Edinson Veraga, the company’s president and CEO, and Claudia Marin, the manager of the facility, are named as defendants in the case.
The docket reports that the FDA conducted an initial inspection of the facility three times in Aug. 2010. The FDA stepped in to inspect the facility following the state’s Department of Agriculture finding elevated levels of Staphylococcal Aureus, or Staph, in the Woodhaven company’s ready-to-eat Queso Cotija; the product was recalled during that month.
Staph infection can range from mild to life-threatening cases, particularly when the bacteria enters the bloodstream.
During their inspections, FDA officials found uncovered cheese came in contact with curtains covered with debris and grime, water and debris pooled on the factory’s floors and food handlers wearing gloves that only covered the hands up to the wrists, “leaving bare forearms exposed and in direct contact with the ready-to-eat cheese being processed,” the docket states.
FDA labs also found traces of Listeria monocytogenes,the causative agent for listeriosis—the leading cause of death among foodborne bacterial pathogens, which the FDA estimated causes roughly 2,500 serious illnesses and 500 deaths each year—during inspections in 2010 and 2011.
When reached by The Forum, Patricia El-Hinnawy, a public affairs officer for the FDA, issued a brief statement that read,“Regarding the bacteria, Listeria monocytogenes,was found in the facility but not necessarily in the product. To date, no illnesses have been reported from the Mexicali Cheese company’s products.
”The docket further states that Vergara and Marin initially told FDA inspectors they would remedy the violations within two weeks of the Aug. 2010 visit. In a follow-up visit by inspectors in Sept. 2010, “no corrections had been made since FDA’s August 2010 inspection.
”During inspections conducted in May and June of last year, FDA inspectors found many of the same violations spotted in previous inspections, but also including rodent excrement in the storage room, construction debris outside the production room, and traces of mono on multiple non-food-contact surfaces,including on cheese processing tables, plastic crates that hold packaged cheese, a hand truck, corners of the processing room, the dry storage room and the walk-in cooler.
The FDA has levied roughly $15,000 in fines and more than 35 warning letters, according to the court papers. However, as the company has failed to meet health requirements and remedy health violations at the 87th Avenue facility, the FDA is seeking a federal order ordering Mexicali Cheese to cease receiving, preparing, processing, packing, holding and distributing cheese at the facility unless the factory is brought up to code.
In both the 2010 and 2011 visits,Vergara and Marin told the FDA that their company would not recall cheese, despite finding samples of mono during both inspections, because the cheese had already likely been sold or consumed.
“Mr. Marin also stated that Mexicali Cheese would continue to produce cheese despite the widespread L. mono contamination in the facility,” court papers read.
Attempts to contact the company for comment were unsuccessful.
By Jean-Paul Salamanca
Forum Newsgroup Photo by Luis Gronda