Total recall! Williamsburg cheese factory pulls back tainted grub

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A Williamsburg cheese manufacturer voluntarily recalled two of its products this week after state workers in Rhode Island found bacteria that could have led to a health disaster.

The Rhode Island Health Department found traces of bacteria that could grow into “Listeria monocytoge­nes” — which can cause serious and even fatal infections in young children and elderly people, or symptoms like diarrhea in healthy adults — in the Azteca Linda Corporation’s Queso Fresco white cheese and Queso Hebra string cheese, with a Sept. 11 expiration date.

The bacteria wasn’t yet in its harmful state and Rhode Island did not demand a recall, but workers at the Flushing Avenue plant decided not to take a risk.

“It doesn’t matter if the [Food and Drug Administration] concludes that we weren’t at fault — we don’t want to be a company that hides this and regrets it later,” said Azteca manager Miguel Carrera on Thursday. “We’ll take the hit and hope our clients realize that we’re looking out for them.”

The cheese debacle started in July, when a man in Rhode Island showed symptoms of food poisoning, Carrera said. The health department there went through all the foods the man had eaten, tracing his illness back to Azteca cheese that he’d bought in Rhode Island.

Carrera recalled some 792 units at that time, but some of his cheese was still out there — and this week, the Rhode Island officials found traces of the bacteria, prompting a second recall this week.

Carrera said that he hired consultants who would make sure the mistake couldn’t happen again at the manufacturing level.

It’s hard to figure out where the problem originated. The bacteria could have contaminated the cheese at any of several distributors, and have little or nothing to do with Azteca’s dairy practices. Indeed, the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets hasn’t found any traces of the really bad bacteria — Listeria and Salmonella among them — since the corporation opened in 1999.

Carrera doesn’t care.

“If there’s a risk, we’re going to recall it no matter what,” he said, adding that his cheese operation is widespread in the city. “If you’ve eaten Mexican food here, you’ve eaten our cheese.”

The FDA is expected to finish its latest samples of the two cheeses within a week, and Carrera said he will wait for the federal report before giving the green light for distribution again.

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