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Concerns about drop in Alberta food inspections after E. coli outbreak at daycares

Red Deer Advocate - 9/23/2023

The Opposition NDP is raising concerns about an Alberta Health Services report that shows a decline in the number of annual food safety inspections since 2018, as six children remain in hospital due to an E. coli outbreak at multiple Calgary daycares.

The 11 initial daycares shared a central kitchen, which is believed to be the source of any contaminated food and has been shut down indefinitely since the Sept. 4 outbreak.

The heath authority's 2021-22 annual report, the most recent one posted online, shows there were 33,728 inspections from April 1, 2021 to March 31, 2022 — down from 65,560 in 2018-19.

"The (United Conservative Party) formed government in 2019," Diana Batten, the NDP's critic for child care and child and family services, said in an interview Friday.

There were 48,247 inspections in 2019-20 and 26,171 in 2020-21, when there were public health restrictions in place during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alberta Health Services says on a web page created for the E. coli outbreak that its public health inspectors do more than 40,000 inspections annually. It did not respond to a Wednesday request for more details.

Batten, a nurse who represents a Calgary constituency, said food safety inspections were immediately cut — even before the COVID-19 pandemic — and continued to decline until at least 2022.

"I can't imagine that suddenly they hired 45 per cent more inspectors," she said.

"They are nowhere near where they were before."

Dr. Franco Rizzuti, chief medical officer of health for Alberta Health Services in the Calgary region, said last week during a media briefing on the E. coli outbreak that it continues to have a "robust public health team in place."

There are 250 inspectors across the province, he said, up from 237 during the pandemic.

"Thirteen new positions were added provincially to ensure that critical violations were identified and corrected," he said. "In Calgary zone, there are currently 64 public health inspectors and this is compared to 60 before the pandemic.

"AHS routinely inspects all food-permitted facilities. Thorough inspections are generally conducted once per year at minimum with risk-management inspections conducted to follow up on any violations found."

An inspection report on the central kitchen linked to the daycares found three critical violations, including improper sanitation and a significant pest infestation, on Sept. 5 — the day after the E. coli outbreak was declared.

Previous inspection reports posted online also found violations dating back to July 2021. Those included cleanliness and sanitation issues, an expired food handling certificate and inadequate handwashing facilities.

Rizzuti said there were inspections at the central kitchen in July 2021, February 2022, October 2022 and January 2023 as well as several risk-management inspections to correct any problems.

"Before September, AHS last inspected this facility in April 2023," he said last week. "Two infractions were found at the time and they were corrected the same day.

"As of April … there were no outstanding violations left at that site."

Rizzuti, however, didn't say how many total inspections were being conducted across the province and it appears to be just over 40,000 annually.

The NDP said the decline under the current government shows systemic issues.

"We just continue to identify areas where the UCP government … has actually degraded the public health-care system," said Batten.

"They set up the system for failure, which we are seeing."

Batten said it all points to a need for an independent public inquiry.

Alberta Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Premier Danielle Smith has previously said there would be some sort of review into the E. coli outbreak.

There have been 349 lab-confirmed cases of bacterial infections related to the outbreak and 38 of those people — 37 children and one adult — were hospitalized.

All of the six children still receiving care at the Alberta Children's Hospital have hemolytic uremic syndrome, a complication affecting the blood and kidneys, and two remain on dialysis.

There have been 29 cases of secondary spread and several other daycares have closed as a result.