Health, safety – and cheese!

Photo: Estela Olguin, a Food Sense Nutrition Educator for WSU Extension-Skagit Country, demonstrates cheese making.  (Photo courtesy of WSU Extension).

Teaching consumers how to make and buy cheese safely is the goal of WSU Extension-Skagit County’s Queso Fresco (fresh cheese) Project.

The project began in 2003 after several county residents became ill from cheese that had been made from unpasteurized milk, said Joanne Austin, Skagit County extension educator. The county health department recognized the problem and thought a preventive education program would help.

“When there is a need for education, they look to us,” Austin said.

She and fellow faculty members followed the successful Abuela Project model that was created in Yakima County in 1997 after nearly 100 people became ill from eating queso fresco made with unpasteurized milk, said Sheila Ryan, educator at WSU Extension-Yakima County.

The queso fresco classes, which are offered at various times throughout the year by both Yakima and Skagit extension offices, are presented in Spanish and English. Recipes, brochures and handouts also are in both languages.

The risk to the Hispanic population is much higher than the risk to the general population because of the cultural tradition of making and eating Mexican-style soft cheeses like queso fresco, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In many Latin American countries, queso fresco and other soft cheeses are often made from raw or unpasteurized milk.

“It’s just something they have done traditionally,” Ryan said. 

“Raw milk is a potentially hazardous food,” said Karen Killinger-Mann, WSU Extension consumer food safety specialist. “Raw milk can be a source of food-borne pathogens including pathogenic e-coli and salmonella.”

Not only adults can be endangered, but also fetuses.

“Often the pregnant woman only experiences mild flu-like symptoms,” Austin said, but contamination from the cheese can cause birth defects, still births and miscarriages.

WSU Extension Skagit County will offer a queso fresco class at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 26, at the Skagit Community Action Agency. Classes not only demonstrate the steps to make the cheese, but also inform people on how to identify cheese made with pasteurized milk for purchase.

“More than ever, people are buying convenience foods and already prepared items,” Austin said. “It’s important that our education also include information on how to buy queso fresco.”

Information about making queso fresco can be found at

WSU at Large is an occasional series about WSU programs beyond the four campuses. If you have a suggestion of a program to be featured, please contact intern Jessica Fitts at

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