Food fraud: Canadian greenhouse edition

Ann Hui of the Globe and Mail reports that a few years ago, federal food inspectors were walking around the warehouses of the Ontario Food Terminal in Toronto – the nerve centre where much of the province’s fresh produce is bought, re-packaged and sold – when they noticed something unusual.

emersonIn the “farmer’s market” area, where only Ontario-grown produce is meant to be sold, the inspectors saw large cartons of greenhouse peppers with conflicting labels. The outside of the boxes had “Product of Canada” stickers, next to visible signs of damage on the cardboard – bits of paper and glue, as if another sticker had been peeled off. And stickers on the inside of the box read “Product of Mexico.”

That discovery in January, 2012, led the Canadian Food Inspection Agency into a three-year investigation of the company behind the peppers, Mucci Farms – the largest such probe in the agency’s history.

After executing three search warrants at the company’s headquarters in Kingsville, Ont., and poring over its computer records and internal e-mails, CFIA investigators pieced together evidence that, between late 2011 and early 2013, Mucci had been selling imported products as Canadian – putting hundreds of shipments of mislabelled produce worth more than $1.4-million onto Ontario grocery store shelves.

In one e-mail described in a court document and obtained by The Globe and Mail, one of the company’s directors, Danny Mucci, responded to a message from an employee about a shortage of Canadian mini cucumbers by telling the worker: “you know what to do to fill…it’s only 30 cases.”

Mucci International Marketing Inc., Mucci Pac Ltd. and two of its directors (Mr. Mucci and Joseph Spano) pleaded guilty in June of this year to eight regulatory offences – including one count against the company for selling food in a “false, misleading or deceptive” manner – and were fined $1.5-million.

Mucci’s lawyer, Patrick Ducharme, said in an interview that the mislabelling was not intentional, and that, given the volume of Mucci’s 1,200-employee operation, the transactions made up “a very small part of what they do.” He also emphasized that they pleaded guilty to regulatory offences, not criminal ones. Criminal charges against Mucci International and Mucci Pac and the two directors of defrauding the public, and defrauding Costco, Loblaw and Sobeys – to whom Mucci sold the produce – were withdrawn.

The case sent shockwaves through the country’s agriculture industry, and the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers called it a “unique” precedent. “My hope is that it’s an isolated case,” the marketing board’s manager, Rick Seguin, said in an interview.

If the best you can do is hope, then OGVG is in for trouble.

I helped – or did – set up the OGVG on-farm food safety program way back when OFFS wasn’t cool – about 1998.

We got a couple of papers out of it, along with reams of anectodes and observations and every time I’ve blogged about them, the new types at OGVG have threatened to sue (that’s a pic, upper left, of my 14-monty-old grandon #2, Emerson, instead of tomatoes; sue that).

I’m used to that.

And since I’m just a lowly former academic, the legal types tell me, you can’t afford it.

So I’ll let CFIA and the Globe run with it.

powell_greenhouseI had nothing to do with it.

Can only sit back and sigh.

For years, experts have been sounding the alarm on mislabelling and food fraud. Increasingly, they say, criminal organizations around the world are targeting the food system, intercepting supply chains and deliberately misrepresenting or adulterating products – and costing the food industry between $10-billion and $15-billion (U.S.) each year, according to the U.S.-based Grocery Manufacturers Association.

And, according to conversations with experts in the Canadian food industry, scientists and regulators, the problem is widespread within our own borders.

But even the CFIA does not seem to know just how widespread it is. Individual cases provide an incomplete picture. And the 74 cases of non-compliance with labelling laws from the past year published on the CFIA website – a number the agency say has held steady over the past five years – present only a portion of incidents where the agency has found companies breaking the rules. It includes only the cases in which the products were actually seized and detained or disposed of, but also includes technical infractions, like language or font size on packaging.

When asked how prevalent the problem is in Canada, the agency cited U.S. data that show fraud affects about 10 per cent of all food products globally. It also acknowledged it has not yet conducted a widespread survey of its own to understand its full impact within Canada.

In his years as a lawyer representing companies in intellectual property and anti-counterfeiting cases in Canada, Lorne Lipkus has seen cases of food fraud ranging from counterfeit basmati rice (knockoffs of a high-end brand) to fake ginseng.

“You’d think: ‘How expensive is it to grow a bag of rice,’” he said. “But if someone’s making something and making a profit out of it, somebody’s counterfeiting it. … Everything we do in Canada is reactive. We have very poor laws, compared to other countries. And we haven’t had any government involved in the longest time – I’m talking decades – willing to provide the resources to law enforcement to do anything about counterfeiting.”

In EU countries, border officials have the authority to seize and destroy goods they believe are counterfeit. In Canada, customs officials can detain a product, but it is then incumbent on the complainant to undertake court action and to pay for the goods to remain in detention until the case is heard – which can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Most alarming, he said, is that the scope of the problem is not understood because no agency is specifically looking for fraud.

On the issue of mislabelling, experts also point to policy initiatives abroad – such as a U.S. proposal to require companies to have food fraud prevention programs – as evidence others seem to take the issue more seriously.

Although the CFIA has not conducted a full survey of the issue in Canada, James Crawford, acting associate vice-president of operations with the federal agency, said CFIA receives about 40 complaints a year about possible food misrepresentation.

In an interview, Mr. Crawford said the agency takes food fraud seriously. He also said Canadians are generally safe from adulterated food – pointing to a Conference Board of Canada study in 2014 that ranked the country’s food system as the safest of 17 OECD countries surveyed.

Stop.

That was a bullshit survey with criteria based on nothing.

On fraud, he said, “we’re proactive and reactive.”

He said CFIA staff conduct regular inspections of imported and domestic food – including daily inspections at meat processing plants. Still, he was not able to say what percentage of products undergoes such scrutiny for labelling.

“We can’t inspect every … import or domestically produced food in Canada. It’s impossible. That’s why we have a risk-based plan. And it allows us to focus on where we think the high risks are.” Some of the things the agency takes into account in prioritizing inspections include food type and likelihood for illness, and each company’s track record of compliance.

Even countries with the most aggressive approaches faced the reality that food fraud is not easily confined by borders.

In Canada, much of the action on the issue has been industry-led. Large retailers in Canada like Loblaw or Costco have programs to safeguard against adulterations, requiring suppliers to subscribe to standardized food safety programs, and undergo annual audits.

Stop.

Audits and inspections are largely shit.

As for Mucci, it is on a three-year probation during which CFIA inspectors will have free access to its premises and computer records. Mr. Ducharme says the company is doing everything it can to ensure accuracy of its labelling, including appointing a compliance officer and reviewing all of its processes.

He believes the CFIA targeted Mucci in part to set an example. “I don’t think it’s insignificant that the place that was targeted for the big investigation was the biggest in the industry,” he said. “They know Mucci’s the biggest. The best.”

Uh-huh.

Do food producers have any idea what goes in their products? Traceability, another fairytale

For all the food companies that brag about traceability, why does it take so long to figure out that your suppliers are in a recall and maybe you should be too?

HT_betty_crocker_recall_as_160712_12x5_1600The lingering, lasting recalls involving products that contain E. coli O121- tainted wheat from General Mills, Listeria-tainted frozen produce from CRF Frozen Foods in Pasco, Wash, and Listeria-tainted sunflower kernels from SunOpta, pile up daily.

Yesterday, the girlfriend of my much younger youth, Betty Crocker, recalled cake mix in Canada because it possibly contained E. coli flour from General Mills.

But how could I not lick her spoon, or sample her beater, as a child or an adult?

Randy Shore of the Vancouver Sun asked me those questions the other night during a conversation about risk, cookie dough and preaching.

I said I don’t preach, I provide information, people can do what they like, but it really sucks if your kid gets a Shiga-toxin producing E. coli like O121 because it’s a serious illness, often with lifelong consequences.

And it’s a scam that for all the prowess and profits of these companies, from Betty, to Golden Dipt brand Jalapeño Breader, to Planters Sunflower Kernels, they can’t figure out who is supplying their shit ingredients.

Markets/local/sustainable/whatever adjective are no better.

It’s food fraud.

Rick Holley, a professor emeritus of food safety at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg (that’s in Canada) told CBC News that eating foods that aren’t well cooked is sorta like the risks people take when they jaywalk and don’t cross the street at a traffic light or stop sign.

“We know only too well that there are folks who like to eat food that’s not well cooked or isn’t cooked and against the best advice, because the food we eat is not sterile — there are risks associated with it. Having said that, I enjoy my salad in the summer time. Uncooked.

“Where we need also to do some work is on maintaining and improving the levels of sanitation in all parts of the food system, food processing plants. We know from investigations that have been done both in Canada and the United States that when there are lapses in sanitation, problems occur in food processing plants. We can see it now happening in mills.”

UCM511108According to Shore at the Vancouver Sun, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned people not to eat raw cookie dough, effectively killing the fun of making cookies.

1.) How serious is the cookie dough threat?

In 2009, at least 71 people in 31 states were sickened by Nestle Tollhouse cookie dough contaminated with E. coli O157: H7. While nobody died, 11 people suffered serious complications. Nestle now uses heat-treated flour.

2.) What about homemade cookie dough?

The flour you use at home to make cookies has likely not been treated to kill salmonella and E.coli, so it should not be eaten raw. Irradiation is used to control insects in flour, not bacteria, so don’t depend on it for food safety.

3.) What about cookie dough ice cream?

Cookie dough ice cream is a guilty pleasure, but you can eat it without risk. Ben & Jerry’s cookie dough is made with pasteurized eggs and heat-treated flour. Most manufacturers, including Dreyer’s and Haagen-Dazs, use similar methods. 

4.) What will happen to me?

According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, rainbow bits contaminated with E. coli O121 may not look or smell spoiled but can still make you sick. Symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, mild to severe abdominal cramps and watery to bloody diarrhea. In severe cases of illness, people may die.

5.) Should I panic?

While the CFIA is so far silent on the issue, the FDA warns that you should not eat or allow your children to play with raw flour products, including homemade PlayDoh. If you make cake, cookies or pancakes, don’t lick the beaters.

Julia Calderone of Consumer Reports lists her own five ways you could get an E. coli infection from flour.

They’re not that surprising to microbiology-types.

Be the bug. Follow the bug (especially animal poop).

Since December 2015, 42 people across 21 states have developed an E. coli infection after eating uncooked flour. The outbreak is caused by a potentially dangerous strain of E. coli called O121.

Like E. coli O157, which has been responsible for food poisoning outbreaks from undercooked ground beef, O121 is a toxin-producing bacteria that may cause abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea, and possibly life-threatening kidney damage. Fortunately, so far no one who has become ill from flour or flour-based products has developed kidney damage or died, but 11 people have been hospitalized. 

Products produced at a General Mills plant in Kansas City, Missouri, in November 2015 are the culprits behind these cases of E. coli infection. The company voluntarily recalled 10 million pounds of possibly contaminated flour, including their Gold Medal, Signature Kitchens, and Gold Medal Wondra flour brands. Several cake and pancake mixes that may have used General Mills flour have also been recalled.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are currently investigating these cases of E. coli infection, and are advising consumers not to eat flour and flour-containing foods that have not been cooked or baked. Consuming raw flour is a potential hazard, says the FDA, since it isn’t meant to be a ready-to-eat product.

Some of the ways you could ingest uncooked flour may not be so obvious. Here are five sources of potentially tainted flour that you should watch out for if you want to prevent a possible associated E. coli infection. 

  1. Raw doughs and batters.Of course, cookie doughs, pizza doughs, and cake and pancake batters are risky, so you should be careful not to accidentally or intentionally eat them before they’re cooked.

But raw dough can also make you sick even if you don’t intend to eat it. For example, kneading bread dough often leaves you with floury hands. Some restaurants give children balls of uncooked dough to play with, and they could stick either the tainted ball or their contaminated fingers into their mouth. Even storing uncooked dough next to other foods could cause a problem, so be sure to handle and stash it carefully.

  1. Arts and crafts materials.Websites devoted to pantry-based projects offer recipes for modeling clays, play doughs, spray glue, paper mache, and ornaments with flour as the main ingredient. For now, avoid making these mixtures with kids, and be sure to wash your hands and work surfaces thoroughly afterward if you decide to work with them.
  2. No-cook dishes.Some flour-containing recipes for truffles, icing, and even cookies don’t involve heating or baking. So if the recipe doesn’t call for the dish to be thoroughly cooked, skip it.
  3. Contaminated cooking and eating surfaces.Flour is light and powdery, and can easily fly everywhere in your kitchen if you aren’t careful. Even miniscule amounts of tainted flour can make you sick, so be sure that foods that will be eaten raw don’t come into contact with flour-dusted counters, cutting boards, plates, and the like. Wash these—as well as your hands—in hot soapy water after using them. Be careful if you’re dredging meat or chickenin flour before cooking, so the flour doesn’t go all over the place.
  4. Containers you use to store flour.When you purchase a new bag of flour, you might dump the new flourinto a flour bin or canister that has some old, recalled flour already in it, unwittingly contaminating your new stash. If you’re not sure if the flour you currently have has been recalled, throw it out. Make sure that you thoroughly clean your storage container before using it again.

Doering speaks: Prudent use of antibiotics in animal production

Ron Doering, the first president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, writes for Food in Canada that while the medical community recognizes that the emergence and spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in humans is a potential disaster for humanity, and that it is the overuse of antimicrobials in human medicine that is the largest contributor, there is still a broad consensus that the use of antibiotics in animals may contribute to the problem, though ron.doeringthe degree is still unclear.

The scale of the AMR crisis was dramatically demonstrated recently with the release on May 19, 2016 of a landmark re- port to the U.K. government that reckons that drug-proof bugs already kill 700,000 people a year and warns that that number is likely to rise to at least 10 million by 2050. I wrote a series of articles for this magazine in 2013 and in the spring of 2014 discussing various reports that attempted to assess the extent to which antibiotics in animals contributed to the crisis and I identified a number of regulatory changes to mitigate the problem that were necessary and long overdue.

 At spring the Canadian Animal Health Institute (CAHI), the trade association representing Canadian veterinary drug manufacturers, and Health Canada (HC) announced their intention to work together to develop a policy on prudent use of antibiotics. They promised (1) the removal of growth promotion and/or production claims of medically important antimicrobial (MIA) drugs and (2) to develop options to strengthen veterinary oversight of antimicrobial use in food animals. At the same time producer organizations were developing strategies to promote more prudent on-farm use, and veterinary groups undertook to develop new policies and procedures.

So, after all the promises, undertakings and commitments, how are we doing? I’m delighted to report: pretty well.

In March 2015 the Harper government announced the Federal Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance and Use, committing to move expeditiously on several regulatory reforms. I’m told that notices in Canada Gazette I are imminent and that these will bring in regulatory amendments that will remove growth promotion claims for all MIAs. Moreover, all MIAs used in feed and water would come under prescription drug status, bringing them under the oversight of veterinarians. CAHI estimates that this would bring 140 drugs under veterinary oversight.

I’m pleased to report as well that the federal government is finally taking steps to address the longstanding problem of animal owners taking advantage of HC’s own use importation provisions (OUI) to import for personal use active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) that are not approved for sale in Canada.

There are several problems with this regulatory gap, including the inability to know which antimicrobials are used in Canada, in what quantities and for what purposes. The new regulations will forbid animal owners to import MIA in finished form from other countries.

Major producer groups continue to take concrete steps to address the AMR issue.  The Canadian Pork Council continues to operate its model quality assurance scheme (CQA), which applies to all its members and represents over 90 per cent of hogs slaughtered in Canada.  The Chicken Farmers of Canada has embarked on a comprehensive process to develop and apply strict new rules to ensure prudent use.

ab.res.prudent.may.14The Canadian Council of Veterinary Registrars and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association have been slow in responding to the challenge of AMR, but they have now developed a comprehensive plan and a detailed set of recommendations that will be the main topic for their annual meeting this summer. Veterinary medicine is a provincially regulated profession so getting all jurisdictions to co-operate to create a truly national system is not easy, but they seem to have made good progress in the last two years.

The food industry is always happy to respond to market demands for new food attributes, especially when it can charge a premium for them, and even when most of these claimed attributes (like, say, organic) will have no positive effect on safety, taste, quality or sustainability. Proof of prudent use of antibiotics is not one of these. While there is more work to be done, Canadian regulators, producers, processors and retailers have made remarkable strides to respond to the legitimate concern posed by AMR.

Canadian soup recalled because of C. bot risk

Raices Food Inc. is recalling Verano Food Purveyors brand Mushroom Soup from the marketplace because it may permit the growth of Clostridium botulinum. Consumers should not consume the recalled products.

verano.soup.botThis recall was triggered by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s (CFIA) inspection activities. CFIA is conducting a food safety investigation, which may lead to the recall of other products. If other high-risk products are recalled, the CFIA will notify the public through updated Food Recall Warnings.

The CFIA is verifying that industry is removing recalled product from the marketplace.

There have been no reported illnesses associated with the consumption of these products.

More Salmonella in Canadian hot peppers

Veg-Pak Produce Ltd. is recalling Veg-Pak Produce Ltd. brand Hot Peppers – Red Thai from the marketplace due to possible Salmonella contamination. Consumers should not consume the recalled product.

salm.thai.peppersThis recall was triggered by Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) test results. The CFIA is conducting a food safety investigation, which may lead to the recall of other products. If other high-risk products are recalled, the CFIA will notify the public through updated Food Recall Warnings.

The CFIA is verifying that industry is removing recalled product from the marketplace.

There have been no reported illnesses associated with the consumption of this product.

Fjord Laks brand Scottish smoked salmon recalled due to Clostridium potential

The food recall warning issued on July 02, 2016 has been updated to include additional product information. This additional information was identified during clostridium.salmon.jul.16the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s (CFIA) food safety investigation.

A & E Distribution Inc. is recalling Fjord Laks brand Scottish Smoked Salmon from the marketplace because it may permit the growth of Clostridium botulinum if sold refrigerated. Consumers should not consume the recalled product described below.

If you think you became sick from consuming a recalled product, call your doctor.

Check to see if you have recalled product in your home. Recalled product should be thrown out or returned to the store where it was purchased.

Food contaminated with Clostridium botulinum toxin may not look or smell spoiled but can still make you sick. Symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, fatigue, dizziness, blurred or double vision, dry mouth, respiratory failure and paralysis. In severe cases of illness, people may die.

This recall was triggered by the CFIA inspection activities. The CFIA is conducting a food safety investigation, which may lead to the recall of other products. If other high-risk products are recalled, the CFIA will notify the public through updated Food Recall Warnings.

The CFIA is verifying that industry is removing recalled product from the marketplace.

There have been no reported illnesses associated with the consumption of this product.

Offal fish: Canadian company fined $30K

On June 8, 2016, in Surrey Provincial Court, Lions’ Gate Fisheries Ltd. pleaded guilty to one count each of contravening subsections 15(9)(a) and 15(9)(b) of the Fish Inspection Regulations. Lions’ Gate Fisheries Ltd. was Lions' Gate Fisheriesordered to pay a $30,000.00 fine.

Subsection 15(9) of the Fish Inspection Regulations indicates that an operator of a registered establishment shall comply with all the applicable provisions of the Fish Inspection Act and its Regulations, and implement and comply with a quality management program.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s (CFIA) investigation determined that, on September 22, 2014, in Delta, British Columbia, Lions’ Gate Fisheries Ltd. dressed salmon outside the designated area, and stored and processed fish offal in an improper manner.

This couldn’t be any more Canadian if … Smoked Maple Syrup Salmon recalled due to Listeria

This recall couldn’t be any more Canadian unless it somehow involved fornicating in a canoe surrounded by beavers.

John Oliver has better writers, so regarding a Canadian Senate expense audit, he said, “This scandal couldn’t be any more Canadian if public money was used to get Drake to drink maple syrup on Niagara Falls.”

20160616ca_1466115557396_engAtkins Et Frères Inc. is recalling Atkins & Frères brand Smoked Maple Syrup Salmon from the marketplace due to possible Listeria monocytogenes contamination. Consumers should not consume the recalled product.

The recalled product has been sold at the Atkins Et Frères Inc. retail store located in Mont-Louis, Quebec.

If you think you became sick from eating or drinking a recalled product, call your doctor.

Check to see if you have recalled products in your home. Recalled products should be thrown out or returned to the store where they were purchased.

This recall was triggered by the company. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is conducting a food safety investigation, which may lead to the recall of other products. If other high-risk products are recalled, the CFIA will notify the public through updated Food Recall Warnings.

The CFIA is verifying that industry is removing recalled product from the marketplace.

There have been no reported illnesses associated with the consumption of this product.

Salmonella in herbs — again

Benjamin Fine Foods Inc. is recalling Crown brand Dried Coco Herbs from the marketplace due to possible Salmonella contamination. Consumers should not consume the recalled product.

salm.herbsIf you think you became sick from eating or drinking a recalled product, call your doctor.

Check to see if you have recalled product in your home. Recalled product should be thrown out or returned to the store where it was purchased.

This recall was triggered by Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) test results. The CFIA is conducting a food safety investigation, which may lead to the recall of other products. If other high-risk products are recalled, the CFIA will notify the public through updated Food Recall Warnings.

The CFIA is verifying that industry is removing recalled product from the marketplace.

There have been no reported illnesses associated with the consumption of this product.

 

Canadians say: Update to the Vibrio parahamolyticus guideline

This notice provides an update to the information published on October 20, 2015 regarding the management of the risks of Vibrio parahaemolyticus (Vp) in raw oysters. Effective immediately, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is expanding the scope of application of the bacteriological guideline for Vp in live oysters.

Oyster-Vancouver, B.C.- 07/05/07- Joe Fortes Oyster Specialist Oyster Bob Skinner samples a Fanny Bay oyster at the restuarant. Vancouver Coastal Health now requires restaurants to inform their patrons of the dangers of eating raw shellfish. (Richard Lam/Vancouver Sun) [PNG Merlin Archive]

The interim bacteriological guideline for Vp, found in the CFIA’s Fish Products Standards and Methods Manual will now apply to all live oysters (end product), whether domestically produced or imported. This means that no sample can exceed 100 MPN per gram in each of five subsamples.

Importers, domestic processors and exporters are responsible for ensuring that fish and seafood products meet all applicable regulatory requirements, including the regulations made under the authority of the Fish Inspection Act.

Quality Management Program Importers (QMPI) and fish processing establishments must outline and implement controls to ensure that any significant health and safety hazards identified are controlled for fish imported into Canada, or processed in Canada.

Federally registered establishments must review their Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan to ensure that the measures, as a whole, to eliminate or reduce Vp to an acceptable level are effective in ensuring the live oysters meet the updated Vp guideline. Until the review of the HACCP plan is completed and the measures are determined to be effective, additional interim measures (e.g. lot by lot testing of the oysters) are necessary to ensure compliance. Interim measures must be initiated when conditions are favourable for Vp (identified as water or oyster meat temperature at point of harvest equal to or greater than 15°C or testing of Vp in oysters at the harvest area showing persistent levels at or near 100 Vp MPN/g).

Importers must ensure that the live oysters they import meet Canadian regulatory requirements, including the updated Vp guideline. They must also verify that the oysters have been harvested, handled, stored and conveyed in a manner which adequately manages the risk of Vp.

QMPI licence holders that import live oysters must review and amend their QMPI plan. This will ensure that effective controls are in place so that the oysters comply with the updated Vp guideline.

The CFIA will continue to verify that appropriate controls for Vp in oysters have been implemented; through its regular activities at federally registered processing establishments and with importers using inspections, audits and sampling and testing.

Health Canada is reviewing available Vp data, which may result in further revision to the interim guideline. Until this review is completed, the CFIA will apply the interim guideline to all live oysters sold in Canada, in order to continue to protect consumers. 

The CFIA is preparing additional guidance to assist industry in understanding and managing the Vp hazard.  This information will be available on CFIA’s website.  Industry is encouraged to subscribe to the e-mail notification service to be notified when CFIA manuals are updated.