E. coli cheese outbreak suspected days before recall issued

Health officials suspected an E. coli outbreak was linked to a B.C. cheese farm as early as last Friday, but waited until Tuesday to warn the public because they had to be certain of the source.

1 person dead, 10 people ill

CFIA is trying to find out how E. coli got into Gort's Gouda 2:31

Health officials suspected an E. coli outbreak was linked to a B.C. cheese farm as early as last Friday, but waited until Tuesday to warn the public because they had to be certain of the source.

The Interior Health Authority confirmed one person has died and 10 people are ill from consuming raw milk cheese products from B.C.

Gort's Gouda has been linked to an outbreak of E. coli in B.C. and Alberta. (Gort's Gouda Farm Cheese)

Dr. Robert Parker, the chief medical officer for Interior Health, told CBC News that authorities attended Gort's Gouda Cheese Farm in Salmon Arm last Friday but it took until Tuesday to confirm the outbreak.

Parker says media attention can destroy a business, and authorities wanted to be certain. He says people do not need to stop eating cheese made from raw milk, since there have not been several outbreaks.

“I think if we start seeing repeated outbreaks in unpasteurized cheese products, it might be worthwhile to review again," said Parker. 

"There was legislation brought forward in the '90s federally to stop that kind of cheese production in Canada and importation and it didn't pass,” he said.

14 cheese products recalled

But Parker added that if there are more outbreaks from unpasteurized cheese, the federal government may want to consider a ban.

So far, four people from B.C and seven people from Alberta have become ill — two who live in Edmonton and five who live in Calgary. Health officials say those who fell ill are recovered or are recovering.

"If everything works properly in unpasteurized cheese process, the risks of this happening are very small but they are not zero," said Alberta's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. James Talbot.

The agency has identified and recalled 14 different cheese products made by the Salmon Arm farm. The affected cheeses were sold between May and September.

Health officials say symptoms can appear between two and 10 days, and if anyone who consumed the products feels sick they should see a doctor immediately.

Edmonton victim frustrated

Edmonton's Annemarie McCrie ate at Gort’s Farm on Sept. 1 on her way back home from vacation in B.C. with a friend.

“We wanted to stop and there’s a little sign that said ‘cheese farm’ – so I thought ‘oh, let’s go to the cheese farm,’ because everybody wants to visit a cheese farm,” she said.

Annemarie McCrie stopped at Gort's Cheese on her way home from Vancouver on Sept. 1. There, she says she and a friend "sampled all the cheese and tried everything they had." A week later, she was in the hospital. (CBC)

McCrie said after sampling many products, she bought some cheese before getting back on the road home. It wasn't until a week later that symptoms hit. 

“I just was horribly sick. I started to get cramping – very severe cramping, worse than I’ve ever experienced. So I had a really hard time driving … then my husband took me to the Stony Plain hospital into emergency and they did a stool samples there. And within 48 hours they got back to me and said that it was positive for E. coli. I was very shocked.”

An hour later, Health Canada called.

After talking through her symptoms and recent travel itinerary, McCrie said the Health Canada representative identified Gort’s cheese as the culprit behind her illness.

Althought she is now recovering, McCrie, who is a cancer survivor, says it could have been much worse. 

“Luckily enough, my immune system is better now and I’ve handled this incident, even though I got quite ill. If this would have happened a year ago, I could possibly be dead right now.”

In the future, McCrie says she will be much more careful about where she buys cheese, but says there’s little she can do if cheese manufacturers don’t include more information on their labelling.

Time to change policy? 

Kevin Allen, a University of British Columbia microbiologist, says this recall highlights the problems associated with consuming raw milk and its products.

“Obviously we have a failure here,” says Allen.

Allen says currently Canadian law requires raw milk cheese to be aged for 60 days in order to eliminate pathogens and make it safe, but E. coli O157 can survive well past that time and aging is not a guarantee of safety.

"The problem is we have a modern-day food chain with modern-day pathogens that seem tolerant to these conditions that we use to render it safe,” says Allen.

“I think it’s maybe time to look at our policy and maybe amend it.”

Call for a ban

A Calgary cheesemaker whose family has been in the cheese business for roughly 300 years wants to see unpasteurized cheese banned in Canada.

It's illegal to sell unpasteurized milk in Canada but cheese made from unpasteurized milk is legal.

"I would recommend to the Canadian market to buy pasteurized milk cheeses....  It's that little step that makes it healthier and less of a risk," said Frank Fiorini, who owns the White Gold Cheese Factory.

In the U.S., raw milk cheese that has been aged 60 days is allowed. 

Seattle-based lawyer Bill Marler told CBC News the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering lengthening that period because E.coli can survive longer than 60 days.

Marler says the change is being considered after another raw milk Gouda was recalled three years ago. 

With files from the CBC's Lisa Johnson and Brady Strachan


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