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

Just days after El Abuelito Cheese, Inc. recalled its queso fresco cheeses because they’d been linked to a listeria outbreak, the Food and Drug Administration Wednesday said consumers should avoid all of the company’s cheeses “out of an abundance of caution.”

The Feb. 19 recall had covered queso fresco cheeses sold under the El Abuelito, Rio Grande, and Rio Lindo brands. The Patterson, N.J. company’s other products include El Abuelito Oaxaca cheese, cotija cheese, and crema.

The recalled products all had a sell-by date of March 28, 2021. You can find a list of the cheeses involved in the recall on the FDA's website

The FDA said that it started an onsite inspection at El Abuelito’s facilities, and that it is working with the company to recall any additional products that could be contaminated.

The 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 product 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.

The recalled El Aubelito cheeses were distributed in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Rio Grande was distributed in Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia, and Rio Lindo in Maryland and North Carolina. The cheese was sold to retailers and wholesalers, and the FDA notes that the products could have been distributed further.

Consumer Reports' attempts to reach El Abuelito were unsuccessful. 

Who's at High Risk?

No one should eat the recalled queso fresco cheeses, or any of the El Abuelito brand of 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.

More on Food Safety

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 El Abuelito cheese, or any brand of the recalled queso fresco, 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 flu-like 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 information about the El Abuelito queso fresco recall, FDA warning about other El Abuelito cheeses, and number of illnesses in the outbreak. It was originally published Feb. 12.