Health inspectors found three critical health violations in the central kitchen used by several daycares linked to an E. coli outbreak in Calgary that has infected more than 250 people, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Mark Joffe said Tuesday.
Joffe joined Health Minister Adriana LaGrange and other health officials at a news conference in Calgary on Tuesday morning to provide an update on the situation.
As of Tuesday, 264 lab-confirmed cases were linked to the outbreak, with 25 in hospital and 22 patients developing hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a severe kidney complication.
Alberta Health Services said six children are receiving peritoneal dialysis at Alberta Children’s Hospital, with other patients receiving care at three outpatient clinics in Calgary hospitals.
Multiple inspections in the past year
The kitchen had been inspected four times in 2023, with the last inspection prior to the outbreak occurring in April 2023. Two violations had been noted, but they were fixed and the kitchen had no violations as of the end of April 2023.
The kitchen was inspected after the outbreak was discovered and inspectors found five violations: three serious violations relating to food handling, sanitation and pest control; and two non-critical violations relating to odour and the storage of some utensils.
Two live cockroaches and at least 20 dead cockroaches were found near the dishwashing area, according to the health inspection report.
Sanitizing liquid was not being properly mixed, resulting in a zero per cent concentration of sanitizer, the report reads.
It goes on to say the operator said cold foods were being transported to other locations in over 90 minutes without proper temperature control.
The non-critical violations were regarding a sewer smell in the kitchen, a pool of water due to a leak near the dishwashing area and a thermometer being stored in an unsanitary place.
Previous inspection reports also found violations, including cleanliness and sanitation issues, an expired food handling certificate and inadequate handwashing facilities dating back to July 2021.
“This information, all together, is part of the ongoing investigation,” Joffe said.
Fueling Minds said they were “devastated” by the outbreak in the daycares and immediately suspended kitchen operations and placed staff on temporary leave to “work closely with AHS to identify the source of the outbreak.”
“Until the AHS investigation is complete, we are not considering next steps,” the company said.
A statement from Fueling Brains Academies noted it shares similar ownership with Fueling Minds but the two are independent entities.
“Our affected Fueling Brains campuses source their food from Fueling Minds, a catering company which provides food service to our campuses as well as other childcare centers. Fueling Minds is supervised by a Red Seal chef,” Fueling Brains said. “While our kitchen remains closed, all food will be sourced by external providers.”
Joffe said it’s not uncommon for the diligence of health inspectors to turn up at least one violation at a food service facility, violations that are usually corrected immediately.
The CMOH also said the Fueling Minds kitchen will remain closed until AHS inspectors are “absolutely satisfied” it is safe to reopen.
But the previous repeat violations had the Opposition pointing to a lack of oversight and correction of the central kitchen suspected to be the source of the outbreak.
“I believe this tragedy was avoidable,” Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley said.
“Every time there was at least one public health violation cited, usually more, and many of them were deemed critical. And in many cases it was the same mistakes being repeated over and over.
“That pattern represented an alarm bell with a siren going around saying, this (kitchen) is not ready to be left on its own.”
Notley called for a systemic review of how hundreds of Albertans were infected by E. coli in what medical professionals have called the largest outbreak of its kind.
“I worry about how many other places have exactly the same kind of alarms ringing right now where we don’t have the capacity, for whatever reason, to step in and make sure folks are safe,” Notley said. “And that is why it is incumbent on the government to acknowledge that the system was not business as usual and that the system did fail here.”
The Opposition leader also said she suspected the vacancy of deputy chief medical officers of health and the recent addition of Joffe may have had a “trickle-down” effect on public health in the province.
‘Trust is completely broken’
Sarah MacDonald’s four-year-old son Lachlan is one of the 22 kids who have developed HUS in a mild form and also suffered a mild kidney injury. Lachlan is now home from hospital.
MacDonald said he’s still weak and had problems going up and down stairs.
“He’s still not the right colour – he kind of looks a bit yellow to me,” she said Tuesday. “Four-year-olds, when they’re sick, are cranky and so he’s also pretty cranky and tired, too.”
She said the answers provided Tuesday by health officials about the multiple inspections that found critical and non-critical violations left her and parents in a Facebook group disappointed.
“Food safety should not be an educational experience for the people working there at the expense of my child. This is way more serious than that. And if there are no consequences – which it appears there are none – we should have consequences for citations. I’m sorry that it affects business, but this affects lives,” MacDonald said.
“Certainly after hearing those answers, I don’t feel that my children are any safer with the rules and regulations that we have in place.”
MacDonald said she’ll be packing her son’s food from now own.
“Trust is completely broken here.”
MacDonald watched the update and said she was disappointed it took more than a week after the outbreak was declared for the chief medical officer of health or the health minister to address the matter publicly.
“It certainly doesn’t feel very urgent when you haven’t come up to speak to us for, well, I mean I think it’s been over a week since Lachlan was sick. It’s not feeling genuine,” she said.
“We were looking for compassion, we were looking for support, and I don’t see any reason why that couldn’t have been given way sooner than now.”
Joffe and LaGrange were asked about why it took more than a week for them to speak to the public about the E. coli outbreak.
“I’ve been getting daily updates (and was) wanting to really make sure that AHS was focused on what they needed to do,” the health minister said.
The CMOH said AHS provided daily updates to the public and he had been closely following the outbreak since its start.
“At this point, we felt that it was prudent and appropriate for us to appear here and to speak to Albertans and to answer your questions. But we didn’t feel that there was urgency to do that up until this point,” he said.
Joffe would later clarify that the E. coli infections and outbreak “has been addressed with urgency from the very start” and the public health team had been focused on keeping parents informed about the care their children were receiving.
“We understand and appreciate there is a high level of public interest in the situation. However, our focus has been the affected children and the investigation,” Joffe said in a statement issued after the update. “The priority was first and foremost getting people looked after and then to provide the public with a fulsome update on the situation.”
Officials working with daycares to reopen
Joffe said health-care workers noticed an uptick in young patients experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms, including bloody diarrhea, at Calgary hospitals on the Labour Day long weekend. He hailed their decision to call the on-call Calgary zone medical officer of health to report the apparent pattern.
The children were linked to daycares across the city, which share the common kitchen.
A total of 11 Calgary-area daycares were closed “out of an abundance of caution” on Sept. 3. AHS confirmed the outbreak the following day and soon launched an outbreak webpage.
Last week, Calgary Zone medical officer of health Dr. Franco Rizzuti said AHS inspectors visited all daycares as soon as Sept. 5.
On Monday, four daycares that saw no lab-confirmed cases were allowed to reopen.
Two daycares that had cases linked to them were given the green light to open their doors: Kidz Space and Vik Academy in Okotoks.
Anyone who tested positive for E. coli as part of the outbreak requires two negative tests in order to return to the daycares.
Five Fueling Brains Academy locations remain closed, but the daycare operator said it plans to reopen them on Wednesday:
- Fueling Brains Academy Braeside
- Fueling Brains Academy West 85th
- Fueling Brains Academy New Brighton
- Fueling Brains Academy Centennial
- Fueling Brains Academy McKnight
Child and Family Services Minister Searle Turton said AHS and provincial childcare licensing staff have been working with all of the operators to make sure it’s safe to reopen.
“The childcare licensing team will meet with Fueling Brains this afternoon about the outbreak and their plans going forward,” Turton said.
On Tuesday evening, Fueling Brains said it received clearance from AHS to “safely” reopen locations after taking deep cleaning measures and issuing E. coli tests for staff.
“This has been a very difficult time for the Fueling Brains community. We remain focused on supporting our kids, families and staff during this very difficult time and are committed to determining the cause of the outbreak and will implement any changes in our operations and processes that are required,” a statement from the company said.
Samples of food from the kitchen are being tested in AHS laboratories in an attempt to determine the source of infection, Joffe said.
A proposed class action statement of claim filed in a Calgary court on Friday said “negligent, unsanitary and unsafe food storage, preparation and handling practices” caused the E. coli infections and outbreak, a claim that hasn’t been tested in court.
–With files from The Canadian Press
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