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Infected cheeses claim third victim

EXCLUSIVE

A THIRD person has died and there are warnings that more deaths are possible following Australia's largest listeria outbreak, which has been linked to a Victorian cheese company.

Victoria's acting chief health officer, Dr Michael Ackland, has confirmed that tests revealed that the death of a 68-year-old New South Wales man in late January was linked to the listeria contamination of Jindi cheese products.

The outbreak, which has been traced to the company's factory in Jindivick, Gippsland, had earlier been linked to the deaths of an 84-year-old Victorian man and a 44-year-old Tasmanian man.

Twenty-six cases have so far been identified, including that of a NSW woman who had a miscarriage.

The Victorian Health Department says it acted promptly and appropriately to contain the outbreak, which first came to authorities' attention in mid-December and led to the recall of more than 100 products. But it has warned there could be more cases and further fatalities.

''I'm confident that the intervention that has been put in place with terrific co-operation from Jindi is absolutely appropriate and is the best possible intervention,'' Dr Ackland said.

''Unfortunately, because of the 70-day incubation period for listeria, there will almost certainly be people who have consumed cheese prior to the recall that may still get sick … that could go on for another couple of months.''

Listeria can cause illness and death in the elderly and people with low immune systems, and miscarriage and neonatal infection in pregnant women. Many healthy people show no symptoms.

The confirmation of a third death comes as Australian food retailers, including Coles and Woolworths, prepare to restock shelves with Jindi cheese products later this week.

Jindi Cheese voluntarily recalled batches of brie and camembert on December 19, after the first cases were identified.

On January 18, it extended the recall to all batches it manufactured up to and including January 6, and including the company's other brands, such as Wattle Valley and Coles Finest.

Dr Ackland said the listeria outbreak was the largest Australia had seen and one of the most complex.

He described the process of tracking the outbreak to Jindi as ''an important piece of investigative work'' that involved obtaining detailed food histories from victims, multi-jurisdictional intelligence from the federal government's food-borne diseases surveillance unit, OzFoodNet, and bacterial DNA ''fingerprinting'' to determine the exact strain of listeria.

Since the recall, the same listeria strain has been found in victim samples, some recalled Jindi cheese lines and at the company's Jindivick factory. Dr Ackland said he had full confidence that the Jindi products going back on shelves this week and made on or after January 7 were ''absolutely as safe as can be for human consumption''.

On January 7, Jindi's French-owned parent company, Lactalis - which bought the gourmet cheese brand from Menora Foods in November for an estimated $20 million - voluntarily committed to a quality assurance program that ''significantly cranks up'' its existing food safety standards and has satisfied the state's chief health officer.

Dr Ackland said ''there is no suggestion whatsoever'' that Jindi was not already complying with Dairy Food Safety Victoria's stringent food safety regulations.

''The problem with listeria is it is ubiquitous; it's all over the place and from time to time it does pop up, and it loves soft cheese,'' he said.

Investigations are continuing into how the listeria came to resist the usual safety protocols and contaminate the Jindi products.

Dr Ackland said the process could take months and even then the precise cause might never be found.

While he has confidence in Jindi's post-January 7 cheese products, experts say only time will tell whether consumers share that confidence.

''These types of incidents can destroy a brand,'' said RCA Crisis Management chief executive Ross Campbell.

He points to the 1995 recall of Garibaldi smallgoods after they were found to be contaminated with E. coli bacteria that poisoned more than 20 people and were linked to the death of a four-year-old Adelaide girl. The company closed within weeks.

Other brands, such as Kraft, which recalled its peanut butter products following a salmonella outbreak in 1996, survived contamination crises, although the outbreak is estimated to have cost Kraft tens of millions of dollars.

''It could cost [Jindi] millions,'' Mr Campbell said. ''How it affects the brand long-term will depend on how they handle the crisis.''

Fairfax Media is unaware of any legal proceedings against the company.

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