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updated: 9/12/2012 5:31 PM

CDC reports incidents of tainted ricotta cheese

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Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says ricotta cheese tainted with listeria bacteria is linked to 14 illnesses and at least one death.

The imported Italian ricotta salata cheese distributed by Forever Cheese Inc. of New York is linked to illnesses in 11 states and the District of Columbia. Forever Cheese issued a recall of one lot -- 800 wheels of ricotta salata, or roughly 4,800 pounds -- on Monday.

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The cheese was distributed to retail stores and restaurants in California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington between June 20 and August 9.

Jeff DiMeo of Forever Cheese said the recalled Frescolina brand ricotta salata cheese is from one batch manufactured in Italy's Puglia region but would not name the Italian company that manufactured it. The Food and Drug Administration identified the outbreak strain of Listeria monocytogenes bacteria in an uncut sample of the cheese.

Most people who consumed the cheese would not know where it came from because it was distributed in large wheels for retailers or restaurants to break down into smaller servings or packages. Ricotta salata is a salty, white cheese made from pasteurized sheep's milk. It is not the same as soft ricotta cheese sold in tubs and used to make lasagna.

DiMeo said he would generally advise his customers not to hold on to the cheese for more than 30 days. The CDC, however, said the ricotta can have up to a four-month shelf life, so some consumers may still have it in their homes. The company and the government advised consumers who may still have the cheese to ask retailers where it came from or just throw it out to be safe.

Listeria is rare but deadlier than well-known pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli. It is most dangerous to pregnant women, the elderly and others with compromised immune systems.

It was not immediately clear how many deaths were caused by the listeria outbreak. The CDC said listeriosis contributed to "at least one" of two deaths in New York and Nebraska but did not elaborate. A third deceased person in Minnesota was infected with listeriosis linked to the cheese but that is not thought to be the primary cause of death, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Health said.

Three people from Maryland reported becoming ill from the strain of listeria linked to the ricotta. One person each from California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia also reported an illness. Two of the illnesses were in newborn babies, the CDC said.

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