2007 story of the “bogus bad cheese” and the Eastern Ontario Health Unit

part of header from Eastern Ontario Health Unit website

part of header from Eastern Ontario Health Unit website

This report comes to us via Michael Schmidt and Jacqueline Fennell. It concerns what appear to be false claims made by the Eastern Ontario Health Unit regarding cheeses made for an Ontario farmer by an itinerant cheese maker from Quebec. First up is a statement by Jack MacLaren, who was then President of the Ontario Landowners’ Association. This story is from the summer of 2007:

“Mr. Remi Levac, who lives in St Bernardin Ontario, operates a mobile cheese-making business.  He visits farms across Ontario and makes cheese on-site using the farmer’s own milk.  The cheese is made for the farm family’s own consumption and all clients must sign a waiver that clearly states (a) the sale and distribution of the product is prohibited, and, (b) the cheese must not be consumed for a 60 day period.

In late May Mr. Levac made cheese on a Prescott County farm, and within a day or two, one person who had consumed some of the newly-made cheese sought medical attention for a food-related illness.    As is normally the case, the patient provided a list of all the foods consumed within the previous 24 hour period.  The diagnosis was suspected, perhaps confirmed, as campylobacter infection, a pathogen that does appear in new cheese but can appear in a host of other food products including chicken and mayonnaise – two other food products that the patient had consumed within the time period.

The Eastern Ontario Health Unit (EOHU) was contacted and began an investigation. They obtained samples of the suspected cheese which they sent for laboratory tests.  The tests showed e-coli and coli form counts that were well within legal limits and NO EVIDENCE of the campylobacter pathogen.  The EOHU had this information in their hands by mid-June.

However, on the 16th of July the EOHU issued a press release that made the following claims:

  • That there were several cases of campylobacter infection reported to the EOHU
  • That in ALL cases the victims had ate cheese made from un-pasteurized milk
  • The cheese was made by a mobile cheese maker from raw farm milk
  • The cheese was distributed and sold to relatives
  • Approximately two dozen people became ill
  • Eight people sought medical help

The EOHU omitted these facts:

  • That laboratory tests conducted on the suspected cheese showed NO evidence of  the campylobacter pathogen
  • That the victim(s) had consumed other foodstuffs that are also known to carry the pathogen
  • How the diagnosis of campylobacter poisoning was arrived at (e.g., confirmed or suspected)
  • That the farmer, by distributing/selling the cheese (if that in fact happened) had knowingly violated the terms of the waiver
  • That the farmer and his family, by consuming the new cheese, had knowingly violated the waiver

It is quite apparent that the “bad cheese” story was an intentional misrepresentation of facts by the Eastern Ontario Health Unit (EOHU).  The EOHU had laboratory test results in their possession that indicated that there was no evidence of campylobacter contamination in any of the suspected cheese samples, yet knowingly issued a press release throughout Ontario suggesting the exact opposite.  During subsequent interviews with various representatives of the press, EOHU employees had ample opportunity to correct the misinformation, but instead chose to maintain the fiction that (a) the cheese was contaminated, and (b) many people got sick from eating it.

The coverage by local, regional and even the national press was based entirely on the EOHU Press Release and subsequent interviews with their personnel.  The press should have the expectation that information provided by government agencies is unbiased, complete and true; in this case the information failed on all counts.

Mr. Levac has very legitimate concerns that his business, and therefore his livelihood, will suffer as a consequence.

It is the position of the OLA and Mr. Levac that three things must occur immediately:

  • The Press Release issued by the EOHU on the 16th of July must be corrected
  • The EOHU must issue a public statement explaining why the facts were misrepresented in the press release
  • The EOHU employee(s) who knowingly mislead the public must be re-assigned to a position that does not involve public trust

This is the second time within a two-year period where provincial government agencies have attacked Mr. Levac for no valid reason.  The OLA has assured Mr. Levac that any further government actions against himself or his business will be cause for a concerted, appropriate response by The Landowners.

Jack MacLaren, President, Ontario Landowners’ Association

Jamie MacMaster, Vice-President, Ontario Landowners’ Association

Here is the link for the Ottawa Sun article about this story: http://www.ottawasun.com/News/OttawaAndRegion/2007/08/23/4439661-sun.html Unfortunately now to get that article, you need to pay money. But you can read the opening sentence and headline for free at least.

Next we have two columns by Ian Cumming, originally from “The Ontario Farmer”. Here’s the first:

“In mid – July, a press release from the Eastern Ontario Health Unit about a group of people getting sick from eating on farm manufactured cheese, was printed – as fact – in a host of a papers from the Glengarry News to the National Post.

A press release is a quick and easy way to file a story – too quick and easy. Not a single reporter asked to see the test results of the cheese. Which incidentally showed no campylobacter in either of the samples sent to a licensed lab by both the on farm cheese maker and the Health Unit themselves.

Despite no verifiable proof the press release linked the campylobacter infection in the dozen sick people to the on farm made cheese they consumed, but forgot to mention the chicken and mayonnaise – also great carriers of campylobacter – they might have ate.

Something like linking everyone who got the measles last year to having light bulbs in their homes, but ruling out any possibility it could have traveled home with the kids from school.

Now admittedly campylobacter remains viable in cheese for only “a short time,” to quote Caroline Kuate at the Health Unit. That “short time,” which she refused to put a specific time on, is 14 days according to a cheese factory owner. However that short period of time is the case for most bacteria’s in cheese, with everything gone by 60 days, the factory owner noted.

It’s also chilling when one looks at the time lines involved as this saga unfolded. The cheese was manufactured on May 22nd, the people became ill in early June, when logically with the cheese connection, the Health Unit took a sample.

On June 20th the Health Unit had the results back which showed no campylobacter, along with levels of coliform and e – coli under the legal limits, yet waited until July 16 to send out their press release which made the “connection” between this cheese and sick people.

If people’s lives were at stake with dangerous cheese circulating, why would a Health Unit, legally responsible for ensuring public health, wait nearly a month before issuing a warning to the public? Shouldn’t it be within hours of the lab results being confirmed?

The farmer, who wishes to remain unidentified, was heartsick about what he supposedly had done, until he got hold of the clear test results on July 30. “It’s been hard on morale,” he told the interpreter who interviewed him for Ontario Farmer.

Now he’s seething mad, especially when he’s been vilified across the nation and only being comfortable speaking French, isn’t eloquent enough to defend himself against these unfounded allegations printed as facts by a branch of government.

Would the same branch of government have released this story to the English media, with no lab proof to back it up, if the farmer had been me or you?

The reason for the delay in notifying the farmer was, “we were expecting other results from the lab,” said Kuate. “ The one we were looking for wasn’t found.”

Kuate also felt that the e- coli levels listed in the cheese sample was, “above the acceptable limit. There shouldn’t be any e – coli in food,” she answered when pressed as to what the acceptable limit was.

When asked if the samples were below the legal limit for e – coli in cheese, “what is the legal limit?” she asked. “When you find out let me know.”

“If the level is zero then we can’t eat a scrap of food, especially imported,” noted the cheese factory owner. When manufacturing cheese, “we go with CFIA regulations, the Health Unit has nothing to do with it.”

The e – coli legal tolerance level is under 10 cfu’s per gram, pointed out the factory owner. “She’s quoting that zero to you and she doesn’t even know.”

The factory owner and many eastern Ontario dairy farmers had seen the articles linking the supposed bad cheese and sick people a month ago, and knowing the quality standards and expertise of the cheese maker involved, were suspicious of their authenticity.

Especially when some articles made the Health Unit “certain” connection between the cheese and illness and yet no charges were laid because the farmer “cooperated.” Could it be no charges were laid because there was no lab proof of bad cheese?

Also, would the media print or the police even issue a press release that someone has caused another person harm, without positive proof?”

And here’s the second column, also from The Ontario Farmer, by Ian Cumming:

“They saved the worst for the last.

The vicious attack in the last Milk Producer, stating an Eastern Ontario on farm cheese maker had made people from five families sick with cheese he had manufactured for a dairy farmer, pulled no punches.

It also, like all the articles before it on the same case, wasn’t true.

“It ( the health unit) also took a sample of the cheese, which later tested positive for Campylobacter contamination,” stated the Milk Producer article.

There is the lab report from two samples of that cheese sent in by the Eastern Ontario health unit sitting in front of me. Case number 2258 – 2007 – 060 tested at the Central Public Health Laboratory Environmental Microbiology at 81 Resources Road in Toronto.

According to the lab report the samples were received at 10 AM on June 8 and were reported on June 14th. The report is also officially stamped June 20.

Under the Campylobacter column both samples are listed “ND,” which according to the guide on the report means “Not Detected.”

The health unit itself, in on the record remarks, plus all unbiased cheese experts, have stated this would have been the absolute certain test result for Campylobacter, since even if it had existed, it could not be detected from 14 days on after manufacture. The cheese was made on May 22nd.

“It also took a sample of the cheese, which later tested positive for Campylobacter contamination.”

Shouldn’t the leaders of this billion dollar industry; both from the producer and processor side, know that statement is not, cannot ever with this age of cheese, be true? Yet they piled on in the article on mobile cheese makers and how “public safety must be the industry’s number one concern.”

Stuff it in your ears gentlemen. If you are too scared – for whatever your self interest reasons – to raise a “public safety” peep against the big boys bringing their chocolate milk guck in from China and putting it on our store shelves, leave the mobile cheese makers alone.

Plus we as individual farmers have hired this capable person to make food from our milk to feed our families. You think you can tell us that we can’t do that? Or have government stop it like they tried with church suppers? Stuff it in your ears gentlemen.

This mobile cheese maker, Remi Levac from St Bernadin, has never, ever had a sample of cheese test bad for anything at any lab, anytime, any place. In fact he has a flair for making it taste really good.

Farmers know that and his business is booming. In fact it was OMAF officials at Alfred College and Alex Hamilton at DFO who helped him design and gave their approval for the modern, mobile unit he works out of. Levac also follows the law, having farmers sign a form stating that the cheese is for their own family consumption.

Interestingly the last time he was raided and implicated with false information then as well, the head of OMAF in that particular division responsible for having him raided, never knew about him or that the raid had taken place a month after the fact. She stated that in on the record remarks.

To further illustrate how lower level bureaucrats can manufacture and magnify a “crisis,” the number of sick people with campylobacter in this case confirmed by doctor examinations, is a fraction of that in media reports.

Also the sick child involved was a five month old baby. That, if it consumed cheese, was by its own hand, no adult had fed it. The baby, as of press time, has not confirmed whether it had or not.

There are lessons to be learned here. An investigation by a health unit, which usually includes lab reports, is a private matter. Until they issue it to the media, which should not print anything unless they have access to the lab reports for proof. Simply put journalists need to start doing their job and stop being food safety puppets.

Some Ontario Health Units, through unsubstantiated allegations later proven false in many cases, have demonstrated they cannot be trusted. Those within those organizations who have violated their public trust, should be removed or reassigned. An example needs to be set in this case.

Lastly the Milk Producer needs to publicly apologize to Remi Levac. They were not only dead wrong, they gleefully destroyed his reputation among his clients with a frightening viciousness.”

Here’s a link to the top story on the Landowners Association website.

Here’s another story on the case from Eastern Ontario Agri-News.

Here’s the story as it appeared on C-health on canoe.ca

Here’s a link to the Eastern Ontario Health Unit’s website

Here’s their news page. Curiously there are no listings from the spring or summer of 2007 relating to cheese contamination. Have the news stories been expunged, or were they never posted? Seems weird.

News page from link above

News page from link above

Closeup on news listing from Summer of 2007

Closeup on news listing from Summer of 2007

Here’s what the Eastern Ontario Farmers’ Forum writes about the case:

  • Mobile cheese maker and health unit at odds over illness
    Cheese maker Remi Levac is standing his ground. The owner of a mobile cheese factory – a trailer he pulls with his van – says his cheese, made from unpasteurized milk, was not the cause of 24 people falling ill in Russell County and he now has the results from an independent lab to prove it. He faxed a copy of the results to Farmers Forum. The Silker Canada lab in Markham tested a cheese sample from Levac on July 25. Campylobacter was “not detected,” test results show. Levac says the sample was from the same batch of cheese that caused 24 people to get sick back in early June.

1 Comment

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One response to “2007 story of the “bogus bad cheese” and the Eastern Ontario Health Unit

  1. Pingback: Statements to media by Eastern Ontario Health Unit later shown to be false when lab results disclosed — like the current controversy in B.C.? « The Bovine

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