Seven months after their world was shaken, the owners of Gort’s Gouda cheese farm are still working to get their business back on solid ground.
“It’s been a tough haul. We’re working hard at rebounding, it’s looking positive. It’s going to be a long haul, but that’s okay,” said Kathy Wikkerink, who owns the farm with her spouse Gary.
In February, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency issued a report on its food safety investigation at the farm. It was initiated on Sept. 14, 2013 following a cluster of E.coli 0157:H7 illnesses that were believed to be related to consumption of cheese products from Gort’s.
Twenty-one people were eventually reported with E.coli-related illness and recovered, while a Vernon woman died.
Pinpointing the contamination couldn’t be done.
“Despite extensive efforts, the CFIA concluded that there was no evidence available to confirm the source of the E.coli 0157:H7 contamination,” states the report.
The findings are frustrating for the family.
“Even our staff say the same, it would have been nice if we knew what caused it and then we could address it, but that didn’t happen,” said Kathy.
The report continues: “The CFIA identified areas for improvements at the processing facility and requested Gort’s Gouda Cheese Farm to submit a corrective action plan. The company was requested to make enhancements in sanitation practices, equipment design and building maintenance.”
It adds that, “all food safety concerns identified during the investigation have been corrected. Gort’s Gouda Cheese Farm corrected other administrative and non-food safety related issues within accepted time frames.”
Kathy says the bulk of the requirements for the business involved paper work, “bigger paper trails.”
Under root cause analysis, the report points to raw milk cheese products.
“Overall evidence indicated that there were a number of opportunities for contamination to occur in the earlier stages of the raw milk cheese manufacturing process,” states the report.
“The potential for contamination during cutting, handling and packaging was also found to be a possible risk factor.”
The CFIA is now carrying out routine inspections of the facility.
“We still have the confidence we’re doing our due diligence. It’s not a big deal,” Kathy said of the inspections. “We were able to keep our licence and keep doing what we’re doing.
The business will be changing its name to Grass Root Dairies, she said, a name that was part of their farm in Tappen and a change that was in the works this past summer. Now, the timing is right.
Kathy says she remains committed to producing “real food – your basics, your milk, vegetables, your meat, what you grow in your garden, your grains.”
Overall, she says: “It was an eye-opening experience for our whole staff and family… You don’t do anything that would make it happen, but there’s always room for improvement and that’s what we’re working on now.”