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Cause of death was E. coli from contaminated cheese
Authorities have now confirmed the death of an elderly resident from the B.C. Interior is connected to eating E. coli-contaminated cheese from Gort's Gouda Cheese Farm in Salmon Arm.
Eleven other people in B.C. and Alberta have become ill from E. coli after eating cheese from the farm — cheese that was unpasteurized.
The person who died and two of those who are ill live within the Interior Health Authority region.
“Three are IH residents and one of the three is the person who died,” said IHA medical-health officer Dr. Rob Parker. “The IH resident who died had consumed Gort’s cheese and had a lab-confirmed case of E. coli 0157:H7, and that particular bacteria was a ‘finger-print match’ [with the other cases].”
When the onset of illnesses occurred in July, it was a cause for concern but, as an isolated case, did not ring alarm bells. The province gets a number of E. coli cases throughout the year and, while they try to identify the source, people are sometimes unable to pinpoint the cause of the illness.
It takes anywhere from two to four weeks from the time a person gets ill to get the bacteria fingerprinting done and matched.
In terms of the outbreak linked to Gort’s, health officials saw a cluster of cases implicating Gort’s cheese only late last week, said Parker.
The owners of Gort’s Gouda Cheese Farm remain devastated and exhausted after learning of the death and illnesses and connection to their farm.
Kathy Wikkerink, who runs the popular farm with husband Gary Wikkerink, said their aim has always been to provide people with healthy food.
“Generally with grass-fed beef or grass-fed dairy, the chance with E. coli is minimal. What we do, we want people to be healthy. It has kind of backfired on us. Why we do what we do is for health.”
She said having their small dairy means milk doesn’t have to be shipped across the province.
“We have a huge following of people who insist that it’s raw. We’ve been basically going by that demand.”
It is the farm’s raw-milk cheese that is suspected of containing the E. coli strain that has been isolated in those who have died or become ill.
“We apologize to the public that this has happened. We are not taking this lightly,” Wikkerink said.
Wikkerink says she and her husband have no idea where the issue is with the cheese.
“CFIA [the Canadian Food Inspection Agency] is playing it safe. They know there is a raw milk issue, they told us. Even our two-year old cheese, they made us pull that. They just don’t want any more illnesses.”
She said CFIA inspectors arrived at their farm on Friday, Sept. 13.
“We were totally unaware there was an issue . . .They spent all day Saturday with us trying to get to the bottom of it. They told us already it could be a challenge to find the source,” Wikkerink said. “We have just finished our busiest season of the year. Most of the cheese has been consumed. Eleven people have gotten sick, 10,000 have eaten it.”
She said the farm has had no sick staff, no sick family members and no reports from customers.
“We’re suspecting it’s one cheese or one day of packaging. We suspect it’s small.”
When the CFIA finishes its investigation, the Wikkerinks will begin making pasteurized cheeses, which she said will take only about a month to get to market.
She estimated that the raw-milk cheeses, which will be destroyed, make up at least 50 per cent of the farm's products.
Wikkerink tearfully expressed her gratitude to the community.
“We just want to thank our loyal customers for their support and thank the community for their support. Not just now, but always being there, blessing us so we can bless them in return. So we can be a community together.”
Food contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 may not look or smell spoiled.
Symptoms of E. coli infection include severe abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea. Some people may have seizures or strokes and some may need blood transfusions and kidney dialysis. Others may live with permanent kidney damage.