Locally produced cheese suspected in an E. coli outbreak has triggered a public health warning from Interior Health and the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.
Retailers or anyone who may have purchased Gort’s Gouda cheese products, manufactured in Salmon Arm, should immediately dispose of the product, health authorities said.
Four people, three of them within the Interior Health region, have so far been confirmed with E. coli O157:H7 since July, said Dr. Eleni Galanis, epidemiologist with BCDC.
“All of the confirmed people had consumed Gort’s cheese, which is believed to be the source of the strain,” Galanis told reporters in a hastily called teleconference Tuesday afternoon.
One of those three individuals died in August, but authorities have not determined whether the E. coli strain was the cause of death, said Dr. Rob Parker, IHA medical health officer.
Another four cases are under investigation. Citing patient-family confidentiality, he would not divulge any further details on the infected individuals.
“It’s just now that we’re seeing the cluster of cases … higher than what we would expect at this time of year,” Galanis said, explaining why it took until mid-September to issue the warning. The first case was reported in July, but most of those afflicted began showing symptoms in late August and early September, she noted.
“This information all came together in the last few hours.”
Necessary testing and lab work took additional time.
“The outbreak became more apparent when we got the matched E. coli samples,” Parker added. “We get E. coli 157 cases throughout the year and all are followed up to determine the source.”
IHA also tries to ensure that infected persons do not work in sensitive positions, including the health care or daycare industries, he noted.
“It was about last week when we started to see these clusters of matched cases.”
E. Coli infects the digestive tract, yet there are many types of the bacterium and most are harmless. Some, however, can cause severe illness and even death. Symptoms start two to 10 days after exposure to the bacteria and usually last five to 10 days.
Anyone who consumed the product within the last 10 days and has severe diarrhea or feels very sick should see a health-care provider. Young children and the elderly, particularly those with compromised health, are most vulnerable, Parker said.
Gort’s Gouda has agreed to halt shipments of its cheese products and to stop selling cheese at its farm-gate retail outlet. Their cheese is widely distributed across B.C. and out of province through online orders. They also produce milk, which is not linked to the outbreak and the dairy continues to sell.
“The other products do not seem to have caused any illness at this point,” Galanis said.
The company produces seven kinds of gouda, but authorities have not determined a specific type as the E. coli source, so they issued a blanket warning.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency was expected to issue a product recall as soon as more details of retail distribution were confirmed, they said.
A number of Kamloops retailers stock Gort’s cheese, including the Smorgasbord Deli. Proprietor Anita Strong was alarmed to hear the news on Tuesday since she’s familiar with the local producer.
“They’re a good company to deal with and they’re a good product,” Strong said before pulling the product from freezer cases.
Gort’s Gouda has operated for 30 years, but the Gort family sold the company six years ago to the Wikkerinks, who continue to run it as a family operation.
“Yes, we’ve been working hard to answer everybody’s questions in the last two or three days,” co-owner Kathy Wikkerink said. “Yes, it’s a big blow. Ask me six months from now what it’s going to be like.”
They’ve already had to lay off one employee temporarily due to cutting cheese production. They have seven employees in total.
Wikkerink said she’s confused by the blanket warning, since she was led to understand by the CFIA that the recall would apply only to raw-milk cheeses.
Galanis said the federal agency focuses on specific products and was expected to issue detailed information within hours. In the interim, BCDC opted to err on the side of caution with a blanket warning.
Wikkerink also received notice from Canadian Dairy Commission, informing Gort’s that they are not allowed to make cheese, but said that the BCDC is the authority responsible for enforcing the Milk Industry Act in B.C.