Agency OK with its inspector’s links to cheese farm at heart of E. coli outbreak

OTTAWA – The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says it has no problem with one of its employees investigating a deadly E. coli outbreak connected to a farm once owned by her parents and where she used to work.

Inspector Yolanda Gort is the daughter of the original owners of Gort’s Gouda Cheese farm, which has been linked to contaminated raw cheese products.

Gort later became the regular CFIA inspector assigned to the farm in Salmon Arm, B.C., and now is part of the team investigating an outbreak of the bacteria that has been blamed for an elderly woman’s death and a rash of illnesses in three provinces.

But the CFIA says it looked into the matter and is satisfied all proper procedures were followed.

“Based on this review, we remain confident that there is no conflict of interest and this inspector is carrying out her duties in a professional and unbiased manner,” spokeswoman Elena Koutsavakis said Friday in an email.

The CFIA has recalled 15 raw-milk cheese products sold online, at the farm and elsewhere in British Columbia and Alberta between May 27 to Sept. 14.

Health officials in B.C. have confirmed that an elderly woman who ate the farm’s cheese died because of the bacteria.

On Friday, health officials in Saskatchewan identified another E. coli case linked to contaminated raw cheese products produced in B.C.

There are few details, but the province says the case involves a man from northwest Saskatchewan.

Aside from the Saskatchewan case, the Public Health Agency of Canada says at least 12 other people have fallen ill, including four in B.C. and eight in Alberta.

E. coli is a bacteria that can cause severe stomach cramps, diarrhea, kidney failure and death.

On Thursday, one of the farm’s co-owners offered a tearful apology.

“We are so sorry and we are trying to get to the source of the E. coli, but we don’t know the source and we don’t know what happened,” said a sobbing Kathy Wikkerink.

Wikkerink and her spouse Gary bought the farm from Gort’s parents in August 2007.

An article in the July 2009 edition of Milk Producer magazine says Gort stayed on as the plant manager after the Wikkerinks bought the cheese farm.

Now Gort is part of the inspection team at the CFIA’s Vernon, B.C., office. Besides Gort’s Gouda Cheese farm, she also inspects five other dairy facilities. She reports to a supervisor who regularly reviews her work, Koutsavakis said.

The CFIA says it is perfectly normal for a farm’s regular inspector to work on a food-safety investigation.

“The regular inspector has an in-depth knowledge of operations at the plant and can provide valuable information and guidance to the rest of the investigation team,” Koutsavakis said.

“The team, which is focused on conducting a thorough assessment of the plant’s environment and operating procedures, also includes a senior food safety inspector and a senior dairy program inspector.”

The federal agriculture minister is also standing by Gort. Gerry Ritz says he is not aware of any problems with the inspector’s work.

“She has supervisors that are working with her now to find the cheese, the affected product and so on,” Ritz said Friday in Saskatoon.

“Having said that, I’ve never seen anything come across my desk. I’ve asked for briefings from CFIA. There’s no hint that she’s been anything but a good inspector, credibility and integrity that she’s brought to the job.”

Gort hasn’t worked on the farm for awhile, Ritz said.

“As I understand it, she hasn’t been connected to the farm in some years,” he said.

“There was a period of six months when she had left the farm and was taking the training as an inspector before she came back to work. So there was a distance in between there.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.