CFIA inspector's family once owned cheese farm at centre of E. coli probe
Published Friday, September 20, 2013 6:26AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, September 20, 2013 11:37PM EDT
One of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency employees tasked with investigating a deadly E. coli outbreak at a small British Columbia cheese farm is a member of the family that founded the business.
But the CFIA says it has looked into the matter and sees no problem with inspector Yolanda Gort’s connection to Gort’s Gouda Cheese farm.
"Based on this review, we remain confident that there is no conflict of interest and this inspector is carrying out her duties in a professional and unbiased manner," CFIA spokesperson Elena Koutsavakis said in an email.
Gort is the daughter of the original owners of Gort’s Gouda Cheese in Salmon Arm, B.C. An E. coli outbreak involving Gort’s cheese products has been linked to the death of an elderly woman and at least 12 illnesses in three provinces.
Yolanda Gort’s family ran the business until 2007. After they sold the farm, Gort stayed on as a plant manager, before becoming a CFIA inspector in 2010.
Gort’s father continued to consult with the current owners of the farm after his daughter joined the CFIA.
NDP’s agriculture critic Malcolm Allen says the CFIA should ask Gort to step aside.
“It just simply sends the wrong message,” he said.
But Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz defended Gort, saying “there is no hint that she has been anything but a good inspector.”
Gort's Gouda Cheese farm has apologized for the E. coli outbreak.
"We apologize to our loyal customers for the recall of our raw milk cheeses and to all who may have suffered by eating our cheese," the company says on its website. "We are cooperating fully with the ongoing investigation."
E. coli bacteria can cause severe diarrhea and vomiting, kidney failure and even death. Symptoms of infection typically two to 10 days after exposure, and usually last between five to 10 days.
Pasteurization can kill illness-causing bacteria, including E. coli, by quickly heating and cooling the milk.
While it is illegal to sell unpasteurized milk, some cheeses made from unpasteurized (raw) milk are legal to sell because the aging processes help to destroy harmful bacteria. Health Canada recommends that children, pregnant women, older adults and people with a weakened immune system avoid eating unpasteurized cheeses.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has recalled 15 raw milk cheese products, sold between May 27 and Sept. 14 at the farm, at retailers in B.C. and Alberta, and also through the farm's website.
Farm co-owner Kathy Wikkerink tearfully told the Canadian Presss that the source of the E. coli is still unclear.
"We are so sorry and we are trying to get to the source of the E. coli, but we don't know the source and we don't know what happened," Wikkerink said, sobbing.
In a statement published on the Gort's Gouda Cheese farm website, the owners say they regularly test their own cheese products in an on-site laboratory. As well, their production facility and samples of their cheeses were recently inspected by government officials.
"The most recent government inspection on August 28 did not show any problems. We are working hard with our support team and the government authorities to identify and rectify any issues," according to the statement.
The B.C. Centre for Disease Control is prohibiting the farm from selling any more raw cheese products. They are still authorized to sell pasteurized non-cheese products, including milk, cream, yogurt, and quark.
The business is located 450 kilometres northeast of Vancouver and began operations in 1983. The Wikkerinks bought the business from the Gort family in August 2007.
With a report from CTV’s Vancouver Bureau Chief Melanie Nagy and files from Angela Mulholland and The Canadian Press