The B.C. Centre for Disease Control has given Gort’s Gouda Cheese Farm the green light to resume operation after an E. coli outbreak killed one woman and infected two dozen others in September.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency was unable to find the bacteria during its investigation and the source of the E. coli remains a mystery.
In September, 82-year-old Vernon resident Cory Vander Linde died after eating Gort’s unpasteurized cheese that was contaminated with E. coli.
Twenty-five others from as far away as Quebec also became ill from Gort’s raw products.
It turns out that no more than two wheels of red pepper Gouda were contaminated, said the business owners. Nonetheless, 15 products were recalled and more than 500 raw milk cheeses destroyed in the aftermath of infections.
The BCCDC has now determined that the business is meeting provincial standards but has imposed further safety measures on the operation.
"Gort’s must conduct tests of unpasteurized cheese before it leaves the plant. Those results will be reviewed regularly by provincial inspectors," said Lynn Wilcott, BCCDC acting director of food protection services.
Interior Health and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency will also monitor the operation and periodically conduct inspections to ensure that safety standards are maintained, according to a BCCDC release.
Among the CFIA inspectors is Yolanda Gort, the daughter of the farm’s original owners.
After Gort’s parents sold the farm to Kathy and Gary Wikkerink in 2007, she became the regular CFIA inspector assigned to the farm.
After looking into the matter, the CFIA said all proper procedures were followed.
The new testing measures are going to hurt the business’s bottom line, said co-owner Kathy Wikkerink. It compounds the financial toll already suffered by the past few months’ loss of sales.
“To get us back on our feet, that’s what they’re going to require,” she said. “But better this than nothing at all. We need sales so we’re willing to do what it takes.”
Wikkerink said the measures serve three purposes — pleasing the government agents, increasing confidence among consumers and increasing confidence for the owners themselves.
Staff will also need to be retrained for newly imposed stringent cleaning methods, she said.
And the Wikkerinks are now encouraging those with compromised or weakened immune systems to “be aware” of potential hazards when eating unpasteurized milk products.
Wikkerink wouldn’t go so far as to suggest they avoid them altogether since the point of unpasteurized milk is that it retains healthy bacteria, which boosts immune systems.
“Live foods are healthier foods but there is a risk involved just like when you eat out of your garden,” she said.
She added that this was the only E. coli outbreak in Gort’s 30 years of operation.
The Wikkerinks have personally apologized to the victims who came forward and the family of the fatal victim.
They were able to move on and rebuild the business with the strength of their religious beliefs.
“We held onto our faith through this all,” she said. “It was a difficult journey when we look at our problems but when you look at the big picture, God’s got everything in his hands.”