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Company at centre of E. coli outbreak at Calgary daycares faces licensing charges

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The company that runs a commercial kitchen at the centre of an E. coli outbreak that has infected hundreds at numerous Calgary daycares has been charged with operating without a business licence.

The City of Calgary announced Wednesday that Fueling Minds Inc. and its two directors face a total of 12 charges under municipal business bylaws and face a total fine of up to $120,000.

Meanwhile, Alberta chief medical officer Dr. Mark Joffe said the number of cases has plateaued at 351, and tests and interviews indicate the cause of the outbreak was meat loaf and vegan loaf.

He said there are also 37 confirmed secondary cases and four children remain in hospital.

Fueling Minds provided meals to six of its own daycares that were affected by the outbreak, which was declared Sept. 4, and also to five separate daycares.

The city alleges Fueling Minds did not have the proper licence to serve those other five.

Joffe said the investigation into the cause of the outbreak included interviews with hundreds of parents and daycare staffers and the testing of 44 food samples.

"We believe that meat loaf and vegan loaf meals that were served for lunch on Aug. 29 most likely contained the E. coli bacteria that led to these infections," said Joffe.

"Unfortunately, neither of these items could be tested as they were either eaten or discarded before this outbreak was identified.

"While we now have a likely source, what we do not know exactly is what was contaminated or how."

Joffe said the province is to hire a third party to verify its work and findings.

Premier Danielle Smith said former Calgary police chief Rick Hanson would lead a panel to investigate what went wrong and make recommendations on how to make commercially prepared food safer in daycares.

Smith said the panel does not have a set timeline, but she expects to hear from him monthly and would implement interim recommendations if necessary rather than wait for the final report.

"Mr. Hanson will be joined by Alberta parents, childcare operators, food service operators, and food safety and public health experts," said Smith.

"The panel will be examining all aspects of this tragic situation, large and small, as well as taking a full broader look at the legislation and regulations that govern food safety in our province."

Smith said she met with parents of affected children, and a policy change they suggested was posting kitchen health inspection reports in a daycare rather than just online.

Health Minister Adriana LaGrange and Searle Turton, minister for children and family services, are already reviewing food handling in commercial daycare kitchens.

The kitchen remains closed and in recent months has been flagged for numerous health violations, including food transportation concerns.

Diana Batten, the Opposition NDP critic for childcare and child and family services, said Wednesday's developments were a good start to getting answers.

"This will really help some of the families I'm speaking with," she told reporters.

"However, it brings up or illustrates there's a lot of problems inside the system. We heard Premier Smith talk about how we should trust now that the system is safe. Why? We continue to identify more concerns."

Batten said a panel isn't going to help solve those problems.

"It's just spending more money and, honestly, putting a Band-Aid on what is honestly a huge public health crisis."

The province has promised parents affected by the closures in the original 11 daycares a one-time payment of $2,000 per child to cover off financial hardship. Those facilities were closed Sept. 4 but have since reopened.

Eight more daycares faced closures or partial closures in the days that followed as secondary cases were identified.

Smith said last week that the compensation program would only be available to parents of the 11 daycares at the root of the outbreak.

Turton, however, confirmed parents affected by the later closures would also be eligible for the one-time payments, and that was the plan all along.

"The program hasn't expanded," said Turton.

"It's important to note that just more daycares since the original announcement have actually become eligible for those payments."

On Tuesday, the following statement was issued by "Fueling Minds Management":

"The well-being of the community and our staff remains our priority. When Alberta Health Services (AHS) notified us of the infections on September 4, we promptly stopped our catering operations and service.

"Today’s update from AHS indicated the exact source of the infections has not been identified. We continue to work with AHS in their ongoing investigation.

"Regarding the bylaw infractions issued by the City of Calgary, we cannot provide comment on this legal proceeding."

- With files from Dean Bennett with CP in Edmonton, Teri Fikowski with CTV News in Calgary

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