B.C. has had no known cases of illness from eating raw-milk cheese in more than 30 years, making a recall of products from a long-established family farm not just puzzling but highly unusual.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Public Health Agency of Canada issued warnings on Tuesday and Wednesday about a batch of raw-milk cheese made between specific dates from Gort’s Gouda Cheese Farm in Salmon Arm. The public-health agency said 11 people got sick in B.C. and Alberta from E. coli O157:H7 in the cheese.
A medical health officer in the Interior has said that that one person hospitalized for E. coli has died, and researchers are looking into what role the infection played in the death.
But while the incident with Gort’s is rare, a Seattle lawyer who specializes in cases involving food contamination said cheese-related incidents have increased as unpasteurized dairy products have become more popular.
Bill Marler started his career in litigation with the well-known case of the E. coli infections in 1993 at Jack in the Box restaurants, which killed four and sickened more than 600 in the Pacific Northwest. Since then, he said, the beef industry has improved its practices and cases of contamination are far fewer.
Leafy greens, which can be contaminated with E.coli – found in the feces of cows primarily, and other animals – through water sprinkling or wild animals in the fields, are now the most common source. And it is being seen more frequently in cheese, even though it represents a very small number of known cases.
Mr. Marler said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has suggested the time requirement for aging raw cheese, a process that destroys dangerous bacteria, needs to be lengthened past the current 60 days.
A spokesman from the CFIA said the agency is still investigating how the cheese at Gort’s was contaminated.
The dairy operation was started in 1981 by the Gort family from Holland and taken over by the Wikkerink family of Agassiz in 2007.
CFIA spokesman Guy Gravelle said he knew of no negative reports on the farm in recent inspections.
“We are obviously trying to find the cause,” he said. Inspection agents typically monitor dairy farms by examining their procedures for maintaining sterile conditions for milk and cheese production rather than by testing individual items.
The farm’s operators did not return calls on Wednesday, but a representative of the B.C. Dairy Association said he spoke with them in the morning and they are “just destroyed” by what has happened.
Trevor Hargreaves also noted that unpasteurized cheese, which several dairies in the province make, goes through very strict procedures.
“Somebody hasn’t made this in their basement and sold it in a street fair,” said Mr. Hargreaves, whose association issued a statement saying that its members “are deeply saddened for those affected … and hope for their rapid recovery.”
He said the association’s nutritionist recommends that people who are vulnerable to infections – young children, seniors, and those with serious health conditions – not eat unpasteurized cheese.
The farm has stopped selling all of its raw-milk products, even though the CFIA recall was put out only for cheese from lot codes 122 to 138, sold between May 27 and Sept. 14.
Health Canada does not allow the sale of raw milk, nor do many U.S. states – but farmers are challenging that.
Raw milk has been identified as the cause of illness in many reports from both U.S. and Canadian health agencies. But cheese made from raw milk is legal – and often preferred by cheese aficionados.
Both the United States and Canada require that it be aged for 60 days.
“This allows for changes in the cheese to take place. It gets dryer and the acidity increases,” said Sion Shyng, a food-safety researcher with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.
“Aged [raw-milk] cheeses are made throughout North America. It’s not a new product. It’s been around for a very long time.”