NEW YORK: Two Dead: Raw Milk Cheese Producer Pleads Guilty

Vulto Creamery Cheeses

SYRACUSE, New York, March 5, 2024 (ENS) – A former raw milk cheese manufacturer and the company he owned and managed pleaded guilty today to charges regarding cheese that was linked to a 2016-2017 outbreak of listeriosis, the disease caused by the pathogen Listeria monocytogenes.

The multistate listeriosis outbreak resulted in eight hospitalizations and two deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

Johannes Vulto and his company, Vulto Creamery LLC, each pleaded guilty before Magistrate Judge Thérèse Wiley Dancks in Syracuse, New York. A sentencing date will be set by the court. to one misdemeanor count of causing the introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce.

In pleading guilty, Vulto and Vulto Creamery admitted that between December 2014 and March 2017, they caused the shipment in interstate commerce of adulterated cheese.

Vulto oversaw operations at Vulto Creamery manufacturing facility in the small town of Walton in southcentral New York state, including operations relating to sanitation and environmental monitoring.

According to the plea agreement, environmental swabs taken at the Vulto Creamery facility between July 2014 and February 2017 repeatedly tested positive for Listeria species. The Listeria family includes both harmless species and L. monocytogenes, which can cause listeriosis in humans.

Mild symptoms of listeriosis may include a fever, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

If the more severe form of listeriosis develops, symptoms may include headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions. For the very young, the elderly, and the immune-compromised, pregnant women and their newborns, listeriosis can result in death, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, says.

In March 2017, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration linked Vulto Creamery’s cheese to an outbreak of listeriosis, Vulto shut down the Vulto Creamery facility and issued a partial recall that was expanded to a full recall within weeks.

Listeria is a harmful bacterium that can be found in refrigerated, ready-to-eat foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy, unpasteurized milk and milk products or foods made with unpasteurized milk, and produce harvested from soil contaminated with L. monocytogenes.

“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 Brian Boynton, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division. “The department will continue to work with its law enforcement partners to hold responsible food manufacturers that sell dangerously contaminated products.”

“This investigation and prosecution holds accountable the defendant and his business who through unsafe practices caused illness and death to consumers in an entirely preventable tragedy,” said U.S. Attorney Carla Freedman for the Northern District of New York. “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.”

Court documents shed new light on the outbreak investigation, including the many violations FDA found during its March 2017 inspection of the Vulto Creamery.

Investigators found the Vulto employees did not wash their lower or upper arms before placing them in whey to stir and break up the cheese curds, regardless of multiple cuts and abrasions. Black mold was found in various places in the cheese factory.

A partial list of other violations found by FDA investigators includes:

  • Failure to manufacture and store foods under conditions and controls necessary to minimize the potential for growth of microorganisms and contamination.
  • Ouleout raw milk cheese from two different lots was analyzed and found to be positive for L. mono.
  • Failure to perform microbial testing where necessary to identify sanitation failures and possible food contamination, as required.
  • Vulto did not conduct an investigation to identify the species of Listeria and failed to recognize its source or point of entry/harborage at the facility.
  • Additionally, Vulto did not conduct microbial testing of finished products after finding positive Listeria on food contact surfaces to confirm that the products were not contaminated with the organism detected by the environmental testing program
  • Vulto repeatedly found Listeria throughout the facility, even after re-cleaning and re-sanitizing.
  • Clean, sanitized wood boards, used to hold RTE cheeses, were stored in the facility’s attic with exposed insulation and other debris.
  • Failure to take necessary precautions to protect against contamination of food and food-contact surfaces with microorganisms and foreign substances.
  • Failure to construct the plant in such a manner as to prevent drip and condensate from contaminating food and food-contact surfaces, as required.
  • Failure to maintain physical facilities in repair and in a sanitary condition sufficient to prevent food from becoming adulterated, as required.  For example, there was a heavy buildup of rust in multiple locations, including on white painted vertical support bars that hold cheese presses in place. These bars are located directly over a draining table, and rust flakes were on the top surface of the drain table where molds of cheese are set to drain.
  • Failure to take adequate measures to exclude pests from the processing areas and protect against contamination of food by pests.

“U.S. consumers rely on the FDA to ensure that their food is safe and wholesome,” said Special Agent in Charge Fernando McMillan of FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations New York Field Office. “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.”

Vulto and Vulto Creamery pleaded guilty before Magistrate Judge Thérèse Wiley Dancks in Syracuse, New York. A sentencing date will be set by the court. Further information about the case will be posted under “Information for Victims in Large Cases” at the Consumer Protection Branch’s website:

Featured image: Shelves of Vulto Creamery raw milk cheeses. undated (Photo courtesy Watershed Post)

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