CALGARY — The company that runs a commercial kitchen at the centre of an E. coli outbreak that 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, Faisal Alimohd and Anil Karim, face 12 charges under municipal business bylaws and a total fine of up to $120,000.
The company declined to comment on the charges in an emailed statement.
The charges were announced just before the Alberta government provided an update on the investigation into the outbreak that was declared on Sept. 4.
Alberta's chief medical health officer, Dr. Mark Joffe, said the number of E. coli cases had plateaued at 351, and tests and interviews indicated the cause of the outbreak was meat loaf and vegan loaf.
He said there have also been 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 and also to five separate daycares. The city alleges the company 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 staff 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."
The company's statement said the "exact source of the infections has not yet been identified" and it continues to work with Alberta Health Services on its investigation.
Joffe said the province plans to hire a third party to verify its work and findings.
Calgary police said its child abuse unit has also opened an investigation into the E. coli outbreak to determine if there is a criminal element after receiving information from the community.
"If it is determined that criminal charges are warranted, we will release those details when they become available," said a statement.
"We will work with our partners at Alberta Health Services to ensure a fulsome investigation is completed."
Premier Danielle Smith said former Calgary police chief Rick Hanson would also 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 Hanson monthly and would implement interim recommendations if necessary rather than wait for the final report.
"Mr. Hanson will be joined by Alberta parents, child-care operators, food service operators, and food safety and public health experts," she said.
"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 daycares rather than just online.
Kyla Herman, a parent whose four-year-old daughter spent 10 days in hospital, said it's been a difficult month.
"It's been heartbreaking, frustrating and infuriating trying to get answers."
She said she wonders how the Fueling Minds kitchen was operating without a business licence after numerous health inspections.
"Why wasn't that noticed?"
Herman said she received the first email about a potential outbreak on Sept. 2 and doesn't know why it took health inspectors three more days to visit the kitchen.
"Of course there's going to be no food left," she said. "They cleaned up the mess."
Health Minister Adriana LaGrange and Children and Family Services Minister Searle Turton were previously asked by Smith to review food handling in commercial daycare kitchens.
The Fueling Minds kitchen remains closed.
The day after the outbreak was declared, it was flagged for three critical health violations, including a lack of proper sanitization methods, a pest infestation that included cockroaches and food being transported without temperature control.
Diana Batten, the Opposition NDP's critic for child care and child and family services, said Wednesday's developments were a good start to getting answers but there are still 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," she said.
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 the parents affected by the later closures would also be eligible for the one-time payments, and suggested 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."
The program, which opened for applications Monday, was initially expected to cost more than $2.5 million for nearly 1,300 children. On Wednesday morning, there had been 961 applications filed for 1,099 children.
— With files from Dean Bennett in Edmonton
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Sept. 27, 2023.
Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press