NEW YORK CITY – March 15, 2005 – Several types of cheese imported from Mexico may be contaminated with Mycobacterium bovis, which causes tuberculosis, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH). The types of cheese, including queso fresco, may be unpasteurized and may also be illegally imported from Mexico and sold without approval by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.
The Health Department has identified 35 cases of tuberculosis caused by M. bovis in city residents between 2001 and 2004. In one of those cases, a 15-month-old child who died in March 2004 was later determined to have died from complications due to M. bovis infection.
"As a rule, people should not eat food products that are unlabeled or not labeled in English, as is required by law," said DOHMH Commissioner Thomas R. Frieden. "Illegally imported food products may not be manufactured or packaged in compliance with the FDA's strict regulations; consuming these products may endanger your health. Some people are at higher risk than others, including pregnant women, newborn babies and children, seniors, and those with weakened immune systems. If you believe that you or someone you know has symptoms of TB infection – including coughing that lasts for three weeks or longer, fever or chills, night sweats, loss of appetite and weight loss – please see your physician or call 311 to find a Health Department Chest Center, where we offer free, state-of-the-art TB services."
"Tuberculosis is a serious problem for our children, our families, and our city," said Brother Joel Magallán, Executive Director of Asociación Tepeyac de New York, an umbrella group comprising 40 community-based organizations serving the city's Latin American communities. "By eating illegally imported foods, we are endangering our health and possibly putting our lives at risk. We will work with the Health Department to get the word out in the city's Latin American community: Do not buy or eat these products, and if you have them in your home, throw them out with the trash."
The Health Department is currently working with the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on an investigation to determine the source of products associated with this illness in New York City – in particular, targeting stores that serve the city's Latin American communities, and Mexicans in particular. Unlabeled or improperly labeled cheese has been obtained for testing from Mexican grocers in Brooklyn and Queens, as well as directly from Mexico through a courier. Consumers should avoid eating cheese that is not labeled or does not have the word "pasteurized" stated clearly on the label. People who have these products in their homes should not consume them and immediately dispose of them in the trash.
DOHMH has also alerted physicians and medical institutions to consider the diagnosis of tuberculosis caused by M. bovis , and to report suspected cases to the Health Department's Bureau of TB Control.
Facts About M. bovis
M. bovis commonly causes disease in cattle and other animals but may cause illness in humans through eating unpasteurized milk products made from infected cattle. It is more likely than other TB-causing bacteria to cause tuberculosis in parts of the body other than the lungs. General symptoms of M. bovis tuberculosis may include fever, night sweats, and weight loss. Other symptoms may manifest themselves depending on the part of the body affected by the disease: e.g., infection of the lungs may be associated with coughing; lymph node infection may cause swelling in the neck; and gastrointestinal infection may cause abdominal pain and swelling, as well as diarrhea. In rare instances, a person may die if the disease is left untreated.
Symptoms generally appear months to years after infection with M. bovis , but some people may never show signs of illness. A fact sheet on M. bovis can be found at http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/html/tb/tb-mbovis.shtml.
FDA'S Advisory Concerning Imported "Soft" Cheeses
According to the FDA, some imported "soft" cheeses originating from Central American countries, including Mexico, Nicaragua and Honduras, are made from unpasteurized milk and can cause infectious diseases in addition to TB, including listeriosis, salmonella poisoning and brucellosis. These products may then be sold at stores, at flea markets, from the back of trucks, or by door-to-door salespersons. The FDA's advisory can be found at http://www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/news/2005/NEW01165.html.