TORONTO — An outbreak of E. coli that's sickened hundreds has shone a much-needed spotlight on food safety at daycares, experts said as Alberta Premier Danielle Smith pledged to consider further regulations in shared kitchens.
There have been 337 lab-confirmed cases of the bacterial infection in the Calgary outbreak, and though an investigation is ongoing, officials believe it is linked to a shared kitchen — Fueling Minds Inc. — that serves local daycares.
"I know parents want answers, and so do I," Smith said at a press conference on Friday. "That's why we're conducting a review of all shared kitchens that serve child-care centres. We will explore regulations and make changes if needed."
Canada is in the midst of building up its child-care system with a recent cash infusion from the federal government, and so far food hasn't been a big part of the conversation, said Martha Friendly, executive director of the non-profit Childcare Resource and Research Unit.
Different provinces have different rules around what food should be provided at daycares: some require that the centres supply food for kids, while others require only that they serve food, which may be packed by parents.
In provinces that require daycares provide food — whether they get it from a central kitchen or make it on-site — public health rules about handling that food generally apply in the child-care facility, Friendly said.
But in provinces where there's no requirement that child-care centres supply food, such as Alberta, there aren't robust regulations around food handling, she said.
Large kitchens do have to follow public health rules, she said, but it can be tempting for for-profit companies to skimp when it comes to expensive safety protocols.
David Farnell, CEO of the Toronto-based daycare caterer Real Food for Real Kids (RFRK), said his company has numerous procedures to ensure their meals and snacks are safe for kids to eat, and many of them go above and beyond what the province regulates.
It's pricey, he said, but it's necessary because the stakes are so high.
And even from a business perspective, he said, the cost makes sense: "What is the reputational cost of harming (hundreds of) kids?"
At his company, Farnell said they make meals for 14,000 kids every day, and snacks for between 65,000 and 70,000. On Thursday, lunch included Filipino beef giniling — sub chili for the vegetarian kids — with basmati rice and green beans.
But beyond the gourmet offerings, Farnell said RFRK uses adenosine triphosphate (ATP) swabs to test for leftover organic matter after cleaning surfaces, to ensure bacteria doesn't grow and viruses don't linger.
That's not a requirement, he said, but he thinks it should be.
RFRK also uses several different types of sanitizers, and at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic added another step that's still in place: a spray that stops viruses from sticking to surfaces, which is effective for 30 days.
Farnell said he thinks parents should ask these questions of their daycare providers.
"The parent should still be saying, What is this person's designation? What are their food safety practices? Do they have sanitation? Do they use ATP swabs? Do they have records of their of their performance?" he said.
Cathy Wang, whose son is set to transfer next month to Fueling Brains Academy, one of the daycares served by Fueling Minds, said she's asking herself these questions now.
“We’re waiting to see what the responses are regarding to food, and also what kind of procedures they will put in place to make sure that, if I send my kid there, he won’t get sick from another outbreak," she said.
A spokesman for the daycares said in an email this week that the daycares would have extensive cleaning and sterilization before reopening, and food will be "provided by parents or sourced by external providers."
As of Friday, 12 children were still in hospital as a result of the outbreak, 10 of whom have hemolytic uremic syndrome — a complication affecting the blood and kidney. Six of them were receiving dialysis.
But even if she doesn't get satisfactory answers, Wang said she might not have much of a choice. It depends if space is open in the alternative daycares that she is wait-listed for "just in case."
Some daycares, she said, can take up to a year to get into.
"If it turns out that I don’t have another option…I will be sending my kid to FBA on Oct. 1."
-with files from Jamin Mike in Edmonton.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 15, 2023.
Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press