Here are two stories by Ian Cumming, originally published in the Ontario Farmer in 2007, sent in to the Bovine by Michael Schmidt, as an example of how media releases from government health officials are not always based on fact. For more on how this story unfolded, see “2007 Story of the Bogus Bad Cheese and the Eastern Ontario Health Unit“. More evidence to support the theory that you shouldn’t believe anything until it’s been officially denied.
Column 315, by Ian Cumming:
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 16th 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 30th. “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?
Column 316, 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.