This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Public health officials estimate 2,100 Utahns have been sickened with salmonella from home-made queso fresco since 2009.
The Salt Lake Valley Health Department has tracked down one source of the outbreak an unnamed man dubbed "Mr. Cheese," who was making the product with raw milk and selling it to a Salt Lake City restaurant/deli.
The health department has confirmed that 73 people were sickened with the illness, which causes diarrhea, fever and abdominal pain. But they estimate that hundreds more were ill and never reported it to the health department.
They are still investigating whether there are other sources behind the outbreak.
Officials have ordered the deli to stop purchasing cheese from illegal sources but refused to release its name until pending discipline against its license is complete. Mr. Cheese has not been charged, and officials are not releasing his name. The Department of Agriculture issued a cease and desist order to Mr. Cheese on Oct. 12.
Officials hope the scope of the outbreak it affected people in Salt Lake, Tooele, Davis, Utah, Weber and Morgan counties will remind people to be cautious when buying food.
"They should not be purchasing food products in shopping center parking lots, [from people] distributing it out of their trunks or door to door," said Royal DeLegge, director of environmental health at the health department. "When you go into a retail setting, a deli or a store, you're looking for labeling on the products."
The cheese probe took three years, involved a criminal investigator and extended to a fast-food franchise where Mr. Cheese's wife worked.
People began to get sick in 2009 with Salmonella Newport, and the health department warned people not to buy the Mexican-style soft cheese from unapproved sources. Another 22 Newport cases popped up in 2010. The health department couldn't find a common cause but heard of a woman selling cheese in a parking lot.
By June this year, another 32 people were sick with the strain. They commonly identified four restaurants and a market, where the local and state health department took samples of queso fresco and samples from preparation areas. It found a positive DNA match from the cheese in the restaurant/deli.
That's when the police got involved.
The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food had a name of a potential manufacturer of the cheese, who had a criminal past.
A criminal investigator for the county's District Attorney's Office put together a photo lineup for the restaurant owner, who identified his queso fresco source and called him "Mr. Cheese."
The health department later learned the man made the cheese in his home using raw milk. The man also is not licensed to manufacture cheese, according to the department. Agriculture investigators are still determining where he obtained the milk he used.
"We're looking at what, if any, violations occurred there. There is a cottage industry law, where you are allowed to make food in your house and sell it ... under certain conditions," said Larry Lewis, spokesman for the Utah Department of Agriculture. It is still investigating Mr. Cheese.
There could be other sources of the raw milk and other manufacturers of contaminated cheese.
The health department issued a "notice of violation" to the restaurant, which could be fined up to $5,000.
Raw milk apparently produces a creamier cheese and is preferred in making queso fresco. Unpasteurized milk is allowed to be sold in Utah, but dairies and sellers must have a permit. Health officials warn against consuming raw milk because it can be contaminated with bacteria that would be killed in the pasteurization process.
Mr. Cheese's wife may have contaminated her workplace with the queso fresco. Four customers and a food handler at four locations of a fast-food chain were sickened this year.
"There's no reason for us to believe the franchise sold any of the cheese," DeLegge said. "There's a link we're still trying to pursue and find out how the transmission took place."
To report foodborne illness, call the Salt Lake Valley Health Department at 801-468-3468. Or visit its website, http://www.slvhealth.org, to find a form online.