In the end, it came down to two wheels of cheese.
On Oct. 18, five weeks to the day that they learned their cheese was suspected in an E. coli outbreak, the Wikkerink family received good news.
Officials from both the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) came to Gort’s Gouda Cheese Farm in Salmon Arm to tell the owners that the prohibition had been lifted – the Wikkerinks could once again sell their cheese.
The owners were told “basically that no E. coli was found on the premises and that it was only found in two wheels of red pepper and black pepper (cheese),” said Gary Wikkerink.
Fifteen varieties of Gort’s cheese were recalled following the discovery of the link between E. coli O157:H7 illness and the cheese. In total, 26 cases of illness were reported, 12 in B.C., 10 in Alberta, two in Saskatchewan, and one each in Manitoba and Quebec.
Of those, a Vernon woman, Corry Vander Linde, died, and all others are reported to have recovered. The individuals became ill between mid-July and late September.
The lifting of the prohibition on sales comes with a restriction. Any cheese made after Sept. 14 must be tested before it leaves the premises.
Despite the infamy the farm received after the cheese recalls, he thinks the notifications were necessary.
“Although only two wheels were found to be contaminated, it’s better safe than sorry.”
Both Gary and his spouse Kathy say a huge weight has now been lifted off their shoulders.
“It was a very humbling experience, the whole thing,” remarked Kathy, explaining that it’s “because you feel how vulnerable you are. When you’re working in the food industry, working with real food, you’re very vulnerable.”
She said the community has been highly supportive, both with encouraging words and with stores placing orders again.
“It makes us more passionate about what we’re doing, and also the due diligence to make it effective.”
Lynn Willcott, acting program director of food protection services with BCCDC, said no major problems were discovered at the farm.
“We found some minor deficiencies throughout the process, no major deficiencies at all… We’re confident as they move forward their products will be safe to consume.”
He noted that cheeses produced before the recall are also fine.
“We’re very confident those cheeses are safe. There was extensive testing done with those.”
Asked how he can be sure the cheese will be safe if the source of contamination wasn’t pinpointed, he said the testing prior to the cheese leaving the plant will ensure it.
“The other thing, we’re going to be looking at standards and requirements for cheese plants to see if there’s anything in those standards or guidelines that needs to be improved or modified,” he said, noting this is a normal procedure following an investigation.
“There may be a need for changes to these requirements.”
The findings are expected to be posted on the CFIA website shortly.