YAKIMA -- An artisan cheese maker who is known as a pioneer in the industry wore manure-soiled clothing during cheese production and milked livestock and stirred cheese curds with bare hands that went unwashed, according to a federal inspection report released Wednesday.
Sally Jackson Cheese of Oroville, voluntarily recalled all of its cheeses Friday after the Food and Drug Administration warned that the products should be avoided because they could be contaminated by E. coli. Eight people in Washington, Oregon, Minnesota and Vermont have been sickened, one of whom was briefly hospitalized.
Owner Sally Jackson disputes findings in the report, but said she plans to shut down her business. She said Washington had ordered her to upgrade her aging, wooden facility a month ago.
"My argument then was that I have never made anybody sick in 30 years. That's what breaks my heart now, that this is how it ended," she said. "This has never happened."
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The FDA confirmed Wednesday that the company's cheese had been linked to the eight illnesses.
A small farm business in rural north-central Washington, just south of the Canadian border, Sally Jackson Cheese opened 30 years ago and makes cheese from unpasteurized, raw milk from cows, sheep and goats.
Its products are distributed nationally to high-end retail shops, markets and restaurants. Whole Foods Market announced a recall of several Sally Jackson varieties, including some cheese that had been repackaged with a Whole Foods label.
Sally Jackson products do not have labels or codes, and are wrapped in plain brown paper, twine and either grape or chestnut leaves.
David Gremmels, owner and cheesemaker at Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Ore., and outgoing president of the American Cheese Society, said he also was brokenhearted for Jackson, calling her one of the "great cheesemakers of the American farmstead, artisan cheese movement."
"These are small, family-owned businesses that are making very high-quality, delicious, original recipes," he said. "There's just some work to be done in increasing awareness of food safety, therefore preventing such recalls and potential risk."
According to the FDA inspection report, employees did not thoroughly wash or sanitize hands when they might have become soiled or contaminated, and hand-washing facilities were inadequate.
Manure, mud, straw, wood chips and other debris had accumulated on the floors. Glazed ceramic flower pots, some broken or cracked with missing pieces, were used as cheese molds.
Jackson has two to four part-time employees, depending on the season. She said she was the only person in the cheese house making cheese, while her employees were in the milking room, and the inspector did not see her wash her hands because he was in the other room.
Jackson also disputed other findings in the report, but said inspectors have said her facility is too run down and needs to be rebuilt.
With taxable income of just $12,000 per year, she said she will shut down instead.