Raw cheese producer faces possible prison time over connection with deadly Listeria outbreak

By Teodora Lyubomirova

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags Dairy Cheese

Johannes H. Vulto and his company Vulto Creamery LLC have pleaded guilty to selling and distributing cheese infected with Listeria monocytogenes across the US between 2014 and 2017.

The former cheesemaker entered a guilty plea that carries a maximum sentence of up to a year in prison, a term of supervised release of up to a year and a fine of up to $250,000, while a fine of up to $500,000 can be imposed on the company. The sentencing will take place on July 9, 2024.

Ouleout and all other raw milk cheeses made by Vulto Creamery were recalled once the company's products were linked to the outbreak. Image via CDC

Vulto Creamery, which operated out of Walton, New York, was linked with a Listeriosis outbreak by public health officials when testing swabs taken from the cheese manufacturing facility between July 2014 and February 2017 repeatedly tested positive for Listeria.

The tests included positive results for Listeria monocytogenes, the bacteria that can cause Listeriosis when ingested. The illness can be life-threatening, with pregnant women, newborns, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems most at risk of complications. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, the outbreak that Vulto Creamery was linked to resulted in two deaths and eight hospitalizations, with cases across four states: Connecticut, Florida, New York and Vermont. The cheeses were distributed nationwide, with most being sold in stores in the northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states; California; Chicago; Portland, Oregon; and Washington, D.C.

The investigation led by FDA and CDC determined that soft raw milk cheese made by the company was the source of the outbreak.

After the company was linked to the outbreak, in 2018 a federal court ordered Vulto and his company not to manufacture its ready-to-eat aged soft, semi-soft and hard cheeses until it complies with food safety regulations and carry out remedial actions that satisfy the FDA.

According to the complaint, the agency alleged that the cheeses were prepared, packed or held under unsanitary conditions, and that even though company records revealed positive tests for Listeria in the facility, the firm never attempted to identify the species of bacteria or its source.

FDA also alleged that the company failed to conduct microbial testing of its finished product despite finding indications of Listeria on food contact surfaces.  

Almost 6 years later, on March 5, 2024, Vulto pleased guilty in a Syracuse federal court to one misdemeanour count of causing the introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce. In doing so, he admitted responsibility for overseeing operations at the facility, including those relating to sanitation and environmental monitoring.

“This investigation and prosecution hold accountable the defendant and his business who through unsafe practices caused illness and death to consumers in an entirely preventable tragedy,” said US Attorney Freedman. “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.”

“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 Boynton. “The department will continue to work with its law enforcement partners to hold responsible food manufacturers that sell dangerously contaminated products.”

“US consumers rely on the FDA to ensure that their food is safe and wholesome,” said Special Agent in Charge McMillan. “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.”

Related topics Regulation & Safety

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