Labels of recalled queso fresco brands
Three of the queso fresco cheeses that have been recalled.
Photo: FDA

El Abuelito Cheese has recalled more cheese amid a listeria outbreak that has sickened 11 people, adding quesillo Oaxaca and requeson cheeses to its initial recall of queso fresco cheeses, according to the Food and Drug Administration. One person has died.

The complete list of recalled cheeses now includes:

• Queso fresco from El Abuelito, Rio Grande, and Rio Lindo brands with sell-by dates through March 28, 2021.

• Quesillo from El Abuelito, El Paisano, El Sabrosito, El Viejito, Ideal, La Cima, Quesos Finos, and San Carlos brands with sell-by dates through April 16, 2021.

• Requeson from El Abuelito and El Viejito brands with sell-by dates through March 14, 2021.

The recalled cheeses were distributed in Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

The cheeses were sold to retailers and wholesalers, and the FDA notes that the products could have been distributed further.

The El Paisano, El Sabrosito, El Viejito, Ideal, La Cima, Quesos Finos, and San Carlos quesillos were sold in bulk packages. El Abuelito says that retailers may have repackaged the bulk quesillo into smaller containers and sold this repackaged product to consumers. This repackaged product might not bear the original labeling and product information.

You can find a complete list of the recalled queso frescoquesillo, and requeson cheeses, along with a list of retailers that received the products, on the FDA’s website.

The FDA also has narrowed a statement it had made Feb. 24. The agency said then to avoid all El Abuelito cheeses “out of an abundance of caution.” But now the FDA says it’s concerned only about the cheeses on the recalled list. Other products produced by the Patterson, N.J., company were not made in the same facility (plant #34-12179) as the recalled cheeses. The other products not included by the FDA include Panela cheese, cotija cheese, mole, crema Centroamericana, and crema Mexicana, as well as El Abuelito-branded meats.

The ongoing listeria outbreak has left 10 people with listeriosis, the illness caused by listeria, nine of which resulted in hospitalizations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which works with the FDA in situations like this. The illnesses occurred in Connecticut, Maryland, New York, and Virginia.

The CDC first announced that there was an outbreak on Feb. 12 but at that time only said it was linked to fresh or soft cheese such as queso fresco and didn’t name a producer. Then, on Feb. 16, officials at the Connecticut Department of Public Health said they found listeria monocytogenes in samples of El Abuelito queso fresco purchased at a store where one of the people who was sick had bought cheese.

As a result, the FDA on Feb. 17 issued a warning about El Abuelito queso fresco. But the agency said at the time that no specific type or brand of cheese had been definitely identified as the cause of the outbreak.

Two days later, the FDA said that whole genome sequencing testing by the Connecticut state laboratory found that the strain of listeria in the cheese matched the strain involved in the outbreak.

Consumer Reports’ attempts to reach El Abuelito were unsuccessful.

Who's at High Risk?

No one should eat any of the recalled queso fresco, quesillo, or requeson cheeses. If you have them in your refrigerator, throw them away or return them to the store where you purchased them for a refund. 

It’s especially important for people at high risk to take steps to prevent infection with listeria, and they’re often advised to avoid any soft cheeses, even in the absence of an outbreak. Soft cheeses made with raw (unpasteurized) milk have long been known to be a potential source of listeria. However, soft cheeses made with pasteurized milk have also been the source of outbreaks caused by listeria.

Listeria poses a special risk to pregnant people. They are about 10 times more likely than others to get a listeria infection, the CDC says. About 20 percent of infections in pregnant people result in miscarriage; in about 3 percent of the cases, listeriosis leads to newborn death.

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It’s also more dangerous, and potentially fatal, for the very old, young children and newborns, and people with immune-suppressing conditions. It’s rare for people outside of these groups to get listeriosis.

For other people, if you choose to eat soft cheeses, make sure the label says “made with pasteurized milk.” 

If you do have any of the recalled cheese, in addition to getting rid of it, “thoroughly clean the area the cheese was stored in,” says Sana Mujahid, PhD, manager for food safety and testing at Consumer Reports. “Unlike most other foodborne pathogens, listeria can continue to grow at refrigerator temperatures. Any lingering bacteria can contaminate other foods stored in the same area.”

Symptoms of Listeria Infection

Listeria symptoms usually appear one to four weeks after someone eats the tainted food, but symptoms have also occurred on the same day and up to 70 days after, according to the CDC.

Pregnant people typically experience flulike symptoms, such as fever and muscle aches. Others may also have fever or muscle aches, along with diarrhea or other gastrointestinal symptoms. If the infection spreads to the nervous system, they may also experience a stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions.

Because of the danger to people in high risk groups, it’s important to consult a doctor if you experience these symptoms and you have eaten this type of cheese.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include new information about the ongoing outbreak. It was originally published Feb. 12.