We all know that to get truly tasty and authentic Mexican food, you either need to take a trip somewhere south of the border, or find someone locally who can prepare it properly. Some of my personal favorite places to go are the vendor carts that sell Hispanic cuisine on various street corners in Salt Lake. I frequent one vendor in particular; the owner is like family to me, and I have turned many colleagues into fans as well.
As a health department employee, I have done my homework. After checking with our food inspectors, I discovered that the vendor carts are just as compliant as restaurants with their inspections and are vigilant about adhering to food preparation and storage guidelines. And just like restaurants, they are expected to maintain and display their food inspection grade.
Although it may appear otherwise, this article is not intended to promote these vendors, but rather to remind people to set boundaries on where they purchase their food in order to avoid unwanted illness. In the past year or two there has been an increase in foodbourne illnesses throughout Utah and the rest of the U.S. This outbreak is related to a popular cheese used in Hispanic cuisine called queso fresco.
Many investigations into outbreaks of foodbourne illnesses have revealed that this cheese has been improperly prepared (usually without undergoing pasteurization) and sold without proper storage. Queso fresco, often referred to as “Mexican bathtub cheese” is a white cheese used in many Hispanic dishes that can be purchased at traditional supermarkets and in many so-called ethnic food markets. And while queso fresco is certainly a tasty and integral part of a really good chile relleno, it can be deadly if it is made with unpasteurized cheese.
Salt Lake County has seen a rise in certain gastrointestinal illness in the past year. In our epidemiological investigations we have traced the source of this illness back to unpasteurized queso fresco people have purchased from individual peddlers selling homemade cheese from coolers in parking lots, out of the backs of vehicles, and from peddlers going door to door with their product. The problem with this type of food purchase is that there is no regulation, and therefore the cheese is most often not pasteurized or stored properly — which can quickly lead to illness.
This is not just a problem here in Salt Lake. Surveillance of foodbourne illnesses has also identified nationwide outbreaks related to unpasteurized queso fresco. These outbreaks have resulted in a variety of infections including salmonella, campylobacter and listeria. While these diseases are all bacterial and treatable, they can cause severe gastrointestinal illness with symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, headache, cramping, fever and body aches. Illness can linger for weeks at a time and result in severe dehydration. Many patients have been hospitalized due to these bacteria. And when severe gastrointestinal illness occurs in someone who is already immune compromised, it can be deadly.
Now, I’m not trying to tell you to stop looking for that really good chile relleno or any great Hispanic meal. The real message here is that you need to be aware about what unpasturized queso fresco can do to you. Take some extra time to make sure that all of your dairy products are pasteurized; for centuries, this process has played an integral role in reducing the rates of many foodbourne diseases. And most of all … beware of cheese peddlers!
If you would like to learn more about outbreaks related to queso fresco, please call the Salt Lake Valley Health Department at 801-534-4666.